A California judge ruled that coffee must come with a cancer warning label. Here's what you need to know.

By By Cynthia Sass and Lauren Mazzo
Updated: April 06, 2018
Photo: ADragan / Shutterstock

While sipping coffee and scrolling news headlines this a.m., you may have been prompted to spit that coffee out; a California judge just ruled that coffee companies must warn consumers that their products may contain cancer-causing chemicals.

The Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT), a small not-for-profit group, sued about 90 coffee retailers (including Starbucks) on grounds they were violating a California law requiring companies to warn consumers of carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) in their products-and the judge just ruled in their favor. In this case, the chemical in question is acrylamide (pronounced ah-KRILL-uh-mide), a chemical that's produced in the coffee roasting process.

If this all sounds familiar, it's because this isn't the first we've heard of acrylamide and worried about the multiple cups of java that we throw back every day. This particular lawsuit has been developing for eight years and was first filed by CERT in 2010.

Before you freak out: This warning label may not be entirely warranted. Brewed coffee has an average of about 1.77 micrograms of acrylamide per serving, according to research conducted by Ellipse Analytics for the Clean Label Project, a nonprofit dedicated to food product transparency. Meanwhile, they found that one serving of French fries from an American fast food restaurant has 75.65 micrograms of acrylamide per serving. That means you'd have to drink about 43 cups of coffee to get near the acrylamide dosage you'd get from one order of fries.

"Consumers should be concerned with many popular food products with elevated levels of acrylamide-but coffee is not one of them," said Jackie Bowen, M.P.H., M.S., executive director for the Clean Label Project in a release. The nonprofit tested nine popular coffee brands (including Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks, Peet's Coffee, and Folgers) and found undetectable levels of acrylamide in every single one.

Worried about this scary-sounding substance? Here's what you need to know.

What Is acrylamide and how are you exposed to it?

For some time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been considering issuing guidelines on the acrylamide content in food. Acrylamide isn't just in coffee. It's a substance found in baked, toasted, roasted, and fried foods. It's formed in a high-heat cooking environment by a reaction between sugars (naturally occurring or added) and the amino acid asparagine, according to the FDA. It's mainly found in French fries and potato chips; crackers, bread, and cookies; breakfast cereals; canned black olives; prune juice; and coffee, according to the National Cancer Institute. Acrylamide does not form (or forms at lower levels) in dairy, meat, and fish products, according to the FDA.

Aside from food, the other main source of acrylamide is cigarette smoke-though people are exposed to substantially more acrylamide from tobacco smoke than from food, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Is acrylamide bad for you?

The bad news: Studies in rodents have found that acrylamide exposure increases the risk of several types of cancer, and the National Toxicology Program from the Department of Health and Human Services has labeled acrylamide "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen," based on experimental animal studies.

The good news: While there's clear evidence that the substance is carcinogenic in rodents, there isn't sufficient evidence to say it is in humans, according to a 2018 study review published in Frontiers in Nutrition. This difference may be in part because toxicology studies show that humans and rodents absorb acrylamide at different rates and metabolize it differently as well, according to the National Cancer Institute. It's also difficult to study people's exact level of acrylamide consumption since most related human studies are done with food questionnaires.

What should you do about it?

The chances that you drop your a.m. coffee habit, forget french fries exist, and stop eating roasted foods altogether? Slim to hell no. Here's your acrylamide game plan, according to registered dietitian Cynthia Sass, R.D., M.P.H.:

1. Don't panic. You can't undo the acrylamide you've already consumed. And remember, it's a natural by-product of cooking rather than an easy-to-remove food additive, so even people who "eat clean" consume it.

2. Eat more raw foods. Acrylamide forms from cooking at high temperatures (about 250°F or more), while boiling, microwaving, and steaming do not seem to form acrylamide. Switch up your menus a bit, especially over the summer. Alternate grilled and sautéed veggies with garden salads and chilled veggie side dishes, and opt for steamed brown rice as your starch instead of roasted corn or potatoes. Wrap burgers in crisp lettuce leaves in place of buns, serve up more fresh fruit for dessert and snack time rather than cookies or baked goods, and trade in your second cup of coffee for a tall glass of H2O.

3. Eat more foods that offset the effects. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that natural substances in broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts fight heart disease by protecting the bends and branches in blood vessels, which tend to be the areas most prone to cholesterol buildup and inflammation. Those exact same foods also contain natural detoxers that deactivate cancer-causing chemicals and stop the growth of existing cancer cells, meaning they offer dual protection against the effects of acrylamide.

4. Change the way you prepare can't-live-without foods. One study found that pre-soaking potatoes for 30 minutes or for two hours slashed acrylamide levels by up to 38 percent and 48 percent respectively. Another study concluded that the addition of rosemary to dough prior to baking reduced acrylamide by up to 60 percent. Other tips: Cook potatoes to a golden yellow rather than a golden brown color, and toast bread to the lightest acceptable shade.

5. Pick your battles. If you're worried about acrylamide, coffee is likely the least of your worries, according to the Clean Label Project report.Use your anti-acrylamide energy to avoid foods that are bad for you in other ways too. (Looking at you, potato chips.)When it comes to coffee, there are actually some potential benefits that may outweigh the risks: Studies show that drinking coffee may be linked to a longer lifespan, scores you a better workout (which comes with a slew of health benefits of its own), and may even decrease your risk of certain cancers. While that can't necessarily justify your French fry or cereal addiction, it might enough to make you feel okay about your morning beverage.

And stay tuned: Given the concern about acrylamide among researchers (and this recent lawsuit) there's sure to be more information about the substance soon.

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