Directives from a California court for coffee sellers to put a cancer warning on coffee sold because of acrylamide, a byproduct of roasted coffee beans, has caused an uproar, with many asserting the insignificance of acrylamide as carcinogen.
The Cancer agency of the World Health Organization moved coffee off the “possible carcinogen” list in 2016, while iterating that there is no sufficient evidence to rule out any possible role.
Since there are no known safety level of acrylamide in foods, Dr. Bryce Lee of John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests one does everything in moderation.
“A cup of coffee a day, exposure probably is not that high, and probably should not change your habit, If you drink a lot of cups a day, this is one of the reasons you might consider cutting that down”.
Apart from smoking, acrylamide is present in foods like potato chips, cookies, bread, French fries, cereals, crackers, as well as in other high-carbohydrate foods as a byproduct of roasting, baking, toasting or frying.
For six brands of coffee tested, the levels of acrylamide ranged from 175 to 351 parts per billion; the highest was for one type of decaf coffee crystals.
In comparison, French fries at one fast food chain ranged from 117-313 per billion, depending on the location, as some commercial fries had more than 1,000.
Some baby foods like teething biscuits and crackers contain acrylamide.
The risk of acrylamide
Based on studies on animals given high levels of acrylamide in water, the chemical was labeled a ‘likely’ or ‘probable’ carcinogen.
However, its relevance to human health is unknown as humans and rodents absorb the chemical at different rates, and metabolism also differs from man to animal.
Meanwhile, the same group of Scientists by WHO cancer agency who decided that coffee was unlikely to cause breast, pancreatic or prostate cancer, also suggested that coffee reduces the risk of liver and uterine cancers.
What the specialists say concerning the law
According to Amy Trenton-Dietz, public health specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the California ruling contrasts with science.
“Studies in humans suggest that if anything, coffee is protective for some types of cancer. As long as people are not putting a lot of sugar or sweeteners in, coffee, tea and water are the best things for people to be drinking”.
Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a nutrition expert at Harvard School of Public Health says “at the minimum, coffee is neutral. If anything, there is fairly good evidence of the benefit of coffee on cancer.
He iterates that the law has potential to do more harm than good to public health, “by confusing people into thinking risks from something like coffee are similar to those from smoking”.
The International Food Information Council and Foundation, an organization funded mostly by the food and beverage industry, says the law is confusing the public because it doesn’t note levels of risk, and the U.S. dietary guidelines say up to five cups of coffee a day can be part of a healthy diet.