You may have heard the alarming news that California must include cancer warnings on coffee. The strange new law came about after a non-profit called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics sued California coffee companies under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act because coffee contains acrylamide, a chemical compound that is produced naturally during the roasting of coffee beans. Acrylamide is on California’s list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.
Acrylamide is produced in response to the roasting, cooking, or frying of carbohydrate products such as potatoes, and yes, coffee beans. However, the amount of acrylamide in coffee is minimal and when it is brewed, the acrylamide that appeared from roasting is greatly reduced. Plus, no definitive studies have linked acrylamide exposure to increased cancer risk. Acrylamide has been associated with cancer in animal studies where the acrylamide administered was much higher than that consumed by humans in coffee.
More importantly, many studies have shown protective health benefits from coffee consumption including a decrease in cancer. Regular coffee consumption has been linked to lower risk of cancer of the liver, lungs, ovaries, colon, prostate, and breast. Additionally, in 2016, the International Agency for Research on Cancer stated that it “found no conclusive evidence for a carcinogenic effect of drinking coffee.”
Further evidence of the positive effect of coffee on health is that it is associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurological disorders like Parkinson’s, and best of all mortality. In one review, men who drank 2 to 3 cups of coffee had a 10 percent lower risk of mortality, and those who drank 4 to 5 cups per day had a 12 percent lower risk. The figures were slightly higher in women, and they remained after adjusting for cofounders like age, body fat, race, education, and lifestyle factors.
Scientists theorize that the antioxidants provided in coffee, chlorogenic and caffeic acid, reduce oxidative stress, lowering inflammation, which is associated with many diseases including cancer. This is important because coffee provides the majority of antioxidants in the average American’s diet. This is partly due to the fact that coffee is a rich source of protective compounds but also to the unfortunate reality that most Americans are eating a SAD diet that is abysmally low in foods that provide antioxidants and high in refined processed foods.
Coffee’s antioxidants have other protective effects on cells and tissues throughout the body. For example, coffee upregulates the expression of enzymes in the liver that help metabolize estrogen down the healthiest C-2 pathway. This is a much preferred pathway for eliminating extra estrogen from the body and is believed to play a role in reducing rates of cancer in the breast, prostate, and ovary.
If avoiding cancer and living a long healthy life is a priority (we hope it is!), take actions that are well known to reduce cancer risk: Avoid smoking and alcohol, exercise regularly, adopt a plan to cope with stress, and eat a diet of whole foods, including plenty of vegetables, high-quality protein, and healthy fats. Don’t waste time worrying about the acrylamide in coffee.
One reason to consider avoiding or reducing your coffee consumption is if you find you respond poorly to caffeine. Due to different genotypes, some people feel jittery or anxious from caffeine due to slower rates of metabolism. In this case, decaf or green tea may be a good alternative. Other cases in which you may want to limit coffee is if you are taking prescription drugs (coffee may interfere with efficacy), are pregnant, or are a woman at risk of osteoporosis because caffeine may inhibit bone building.
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