Acrylamide: A coffee drinker's worst nightmare?

Warnings describing the possible consequences of consuming acrylamide, a chemical found in roasted coffees and other food products, can be found in hung in popular coffee shops such as Starbucks and Pete's Coffee & Tea. With busy schedules, sleepless nights, and hours of arduous work, most people depend on coffee to get them through the day. However coffee, as well as many other cooked foods, have been found to contain a cancer-causing chemical known as acrylamide.

Without knowing it, humans have been consuming the carcinogen in their food for thousands of years, though the Swedish National Food Authority only recently discovered its presence in the human diet in 2002.

In 1986, California voters approved an initiative to address their growing concerns about exposure to harmful chemicals. This initiative became known as Proposition 65, which instructed the state to publish a list of chemicals that can potentially cause cancer or reproductive harm.

When Prop 65 was passed, it also required businesses to notify their customers of any exposure to these chemicals that could be found in their products.

The warnings pertaining to acrylamide have been made public, and warning signs can be found in coffee shops such as Starbucks and Pete’s Coffee.

As stated on the Food and Drug Administration website, Acrylamide is a "natural occurring chemical compound found in many plant-based, high-carbohydrate foods after they are heated."

High temperature cooking (such as baking, frying, and roasting) causes acrylamide formation, which occurs when sugars and the amino acid asparagine are heated at high temperatures. Longer exposure to high temperatures means higher levels of the chemical in the product.

The Prop 65 warning states that acrylamide is not a chemical added to coffee or any products. Acrylamide forms in coffee when coffee beans are roasted, but not when coffee is brewed at home or in a restaurant.

Thus far, scientists have not found an effective way of reducing acrylamide formation in coffee, though light roast coffee has been shown to contain lower levels than dark roast.

“The fact that this chemical is in the coffee does frighten me,” said SMC student Jackie Lainez.

Lainez had never previously noticed the warning signs, and though she does not consume coffee heavily, was surprised to see Prop 65 notices.

A number of studies reported by Swedish and Dutch scientists have indicated that acrylamide can cause cancer and neurological damage. It caused cancer in lab animals that were exposed at very high doses, as well as nerve damage to people who were exposed to high doses.

In a study using rodents, exposure to acrylamide affected the growth of offspring and damaged sperm DNA, resulting in birth defects and infant mortality.

Fortunately, the levels of acrylamide found in food are significantly lower than those used in the testing of animals, who were exposed to high doses of the chemical on a daily basis.

Surprisingly, consumer reactions to the presence of the chemical in food items sold at Starbucks and other enterprises do not seem to pose a problem to the businesses.

“These days, there are so many things like pesticides and hormones in almost everything we consume,” said Lainez. “It doesn’t surprise me to find out that something like this chemical is in coffee too.”

Though it is a little frightening, she does not believe it is any different than all the other products supposedly containing harmful chemicals.

By FDA standards, acrylamide is considered unlikely to have neurological, reproductive, or developmental effects at the levels encountered in human foods, though research up to this point suggests nothing is certain.

For more information on the possible consequences of acrylamide, click here