A look into the industry’s most controversial science.
You walk into your local Starbucks on your busy Monday morning. Rather than filling your caffeine intake for the day, you can tap into your inner hypochondriac. Coffee: now made with your favorite local carcinogen! But don’t pour out your cup too fast.
In 2016, the International Agency of Cancer Research sent out a press release regarding potential serious health risks connected not just to coffee, but other hot beverages as well.
This press release claimed that there was, in fact, a link between drinking coffee and developing cancer of the esophagus, but not for the reason that the public might expect.
Dr. Christopher Wild, IARC Director writes, “Drinking very hot beverages is one probable cause of esophageal cancer and that it is the temperature, rather than the drinks themselves.”
The study involved participants from a variety of countries including China, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey, and South America.
In these countries, beverages such as tea or maté are traditionally served much hotter than the average Starbucks coffee served in the United States. The researchers identified one hundred forty-nine degrees Fahrenheit as the point at which beverages could be life-threatening.
Through this study, they noticed an increase in individuals with esophageal cancer. The researchers’ conclusion implied that drinking extremely hot coffee may in fact increase your likelihood of developing esophageal cancer thanks to the temperature. However, other research suggests that the ingredients themselves lurking within your favorite cup-of-joe could pose serious health risks, regardless of temperature.
The bigger concern with coffee is the amount of acrylamide found in the popular beverage. Acrylamide was not mentioned in the IACR press release.
According to the National Cancer Institute, acrylamide is a chemical used in the production of paper, dyes, and plastics. It also can be found in a variety of food products, and exposure can increase one’s chance of developing several types of cancer.
The acrylamide produced in coffee becomes activated through the roasting process. Most researchers identify acrylamide as either a “likely” or “probable” carcinogen, when researched on animals. There has been little research done on how humans are affected by it.
It is also found in many plant products. Some examples are potatoes, grains and nuts. According the Food and Drug Administration, sometimes these products can have even more acrylamide than coffee. The levels of chemicals in specific foods can be found the FDA’s website.
There is little to no research on whether the brewing process itself increases the amount of acrylamide in coffee. However, the FDA released a guideline for preparing foods that contain acrylamide in March 2016, in hopes to reduce the levels.
For example, with potato farming, simple planning on the times of harvest, variety of potatoes and storage conditions can assist in lowering the chemical. With certain practice, farmers can lower the amount of sugar in the potatoes, a process that makes it more difficult for acrylamide to become present.
Acrylamide is also more commonly known for being in cigarette smoke.
This ongoing research has led to a debate over whether or not coffee should come with a cancer warning, like cigarettes.
A small non-profit group called The Council for Education and Research on Toxics has been fighting to get big coffee companies to either remove the chemical or label their products informing the customers of the risks involved. In a recent court decision, a California judge has ruled in favor of the non-profit, demanding that companies like Starbucks and many others provide a proper label informing the public of links to cancer.
Big coffee could go a different route, however. Years ago, potato chip manufacturers faced a similar lawsuit, but were successful in removing acrylamide from their products. Coffee-makers argue, however, that this removal is not a feasible option in the case of coffee and maintain that the health risks posed by the chemical are negligible.
The scientific community has been somewhat equivocal on just how dangerous the levels of acrylamide in an average cup of coffee are. In 1991 coffee was placed on the World Health Organization’s “possible carcinogen” list, but was removed in 2016.
The National Cancer Institute says more research is needed to form a better understanding about the risks involved with the chemical. According to their website: “Additional epidemiologic studies… are needed to help determine whether dietary acrylamide intakes are associated with increased cancer risks in people. It is also important to determine how acrylamide is formed during the cooking process and whether acrylamide is present in foods other than those already tested.”
It is unlikely that any drastic measures will be taken in the meantime.
Sam Fuller is a third-year Cinema and Photography major who likes her coffee extra deadly with a dash of sugar. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.