Your morning brew boasts big health benefits, but in recent years, there's been some confusing (and concerning) debate about whether there's a connection between coffee and cancer.
In fact, depending on when and where your coffee was made, your package of java may come with a cancer warning about a chemical called acrylamide.
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Here's why: In 2018, a California court ruled that coffee sold in the state must contain a label to warn consumers about the presence of acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen. But in the same year, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment proposed a regulation to clarify that coffee doesn't pose a significant cancer risk and shouldn't require cancer warnings, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
So, can we have confidence in drinking our coffee without worrying about the threat of it causing cancer?
We spoke to registered dietitian Ella Davar, RD, CDN, to settle the controversy and find out if acrylamide — the chemical in question — can harm your health and if you need to start cutting down on your daily cuppa.
What Is Acrylamide, Anyway?
Acrylamide is a chemical used in many industries from making paper, dyes and plastics to treating drinking water, among other things, according to the American Cancer Society.
But acrylamide is also produced naturally via a chemical reaction when certain foods are heated at high temperatures, Davar says. Some of the major food sources containing acrylamide include French fries, potato chips, foods made from grains (like breakfast cereals, cookies and toast) and, you guessed it, coffee, per the American Cancer Society.
In the case of coffee, acrylamide forms during the roasting process.
Is Acrylamide Dangerous?
With the warning labels on some coffee packaging, you might be alarmed by acrylamide. So, is it really unsafe?
Some researchers are concerned that the acrylamide (also classified as a neurotoxin) in your diet may gradually accumulate in your body over time and cause neuropathy (nerve damage or dysfunction), according to a February 2014 study in Nutritional Neuroscience.
What's more, acrylamide has been characterized as a "probable human carcinogen" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Indeed, some research has found "an increased risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer among non-smoking postmenopausal people who consume food and beverages containing high levels of acrylamide, like grains, potato chips, pretzels and coffee," Davar says.
Still, the connection between cancer and acrylamide requires more research. That's because, thus far, most studies on the cancer-causing effects of acrylamide have been performed in lab animals with much higher levels of the chemical than those found in human food, according to the FDA.
So, while acrylamide may pose a possible threat to human health, more epidemiological research (studies done in groups of people) is required to determine whether there's a link between acrylamide levels in food and elevated cancer risk.
How Much Acrylamide Is Safe?
Without sufficient studies, it's hard to know. "There is not enough research on chronic exposure (day after day for years) and the cumulative effect of acrylamide," Davar says.
That said, acrylamide appears to be safe in small doses, she adds. In fact, to date, the existing epidemiological evidence suggests that the acrylamide in food isn't likely to raise cancer risk in humans, per the American Cancer Society.
Do Certain Types of Coffee Contain More Acrylamide Than Others?
The amount of acrylamide found in coffee is likely related to how it's processed.
"The more the product is processed from its original raw material using flying, roasting, packaging processes and added chemicals to extend its shelf life, the greater the chances that it's high in acrylamide," Davar says.
For example, you're more apt to find higher levels of acrylamide in non-organic, conventionally grown and roasted coffee beans with a shelf life longer than six months, she says.
Indeed, products like instant coffee, which often involve more processing, may be especially high in acrylamide. Case in point: 2013 research in Roczniki Panstwowego Zakladu Higieny found that instant coffee may contain as much as double the acrylamide as fresh-roasted coffee.
Even so, you probably don't get enough acrylamide in a cup of instant coffee to make it a major health concern. But if you're still apprehensive about the acrylamide in your instant brew, opt for a fresh-roasted variety instead.
The Bottom Line
While more epidemiologic studies are needed, the current evidence seems to support the idea that the acrylamide content in coffee is generally safe. In other words, you don't need to ban your brew from your daily routine. Phew.
Plus, some might argue that coffee's health benefits outweigh its relatively low levels of acrylamide. For instance, java is full of powerful antioxidants and polyphenols, which are linked to lower risks of certain cancers and other chronic diseases, Davar says.
Still, that doesn't mean you should be sipping an unlimited supply of joe, she adds. Drinking too much caffeinated coffee can raise blood pressure and lead to insomnia, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
For most adults, up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day (roughly four cups of coffee) is OK. But to be on the safe side, you might want to cap your coffee intake to one cup a day and substitute with other antioxidant-abundant beverages such as green tea, Davar says.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., on FDA’s support for exempting coffee from California’s cancer warning law”
- American Cancer Society: “Acrylamide and Cancer Risk”
- Nutritional Neuroscience: “Acrylamide neurotoxicity”
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Acrylamide”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Pressed coffee is going mainstream — but should you drink it?”
- Roczniki Panstwowego Zakladu Higieny: "Studies of acrylamide level in coffee and coffee substitutes: influence of raw material and manufacturing conditions"