When I see a headline like “Coffee may come with a cancer warning” it piques my interest. But the first thing I don’t do is share it with everyone in my social media circle; “Coffee is bad and I now have proof!” The next thing I don’t do is take the article at face value and stop drinking coffee, essentially making a life decision based on one article.
On the other hand, it’s important to be open to new information and update our opinions and beliefs because the world is certainly changing fast. Balancing the reality of poorly researched/biased information and still making smart judgements in an ever-changing world is becoming increasingly important.
Here’s my basic process for a 10 minute fact-check and analysis for these sorts of articles. I try and maintain a “I don’t know” mindset throughout the process:
Step 1: A google search. What are the claims being made and in what context?
The state of California under proposition 65 claims that the process of coffee roasting creates a harmful chemical that can lead to cancer called acrylamide, which is a natural byproduct created when sugars are heated to high temperatures. Acrylamide is typically found in plant-based foods cooked with high heat (e.g., frying, roasting, and baking).
Because of its link to cancer in rodents, it’s listed as a carcinogen in several countries.
The ruling stated that all Starbucks, and 90 other companies in California, must explain the fact on a label on their coffee, which they have failed to do.
Step 2: More research. I go directly to Google Scholar and spend 15 minutes skimming over the conclusion of the actual scientific article that was cited.
I typed in “acrylamide” and “cancer” into google scholar and came up with a large meta-study, which is basically a study of several studies. This is the conclusion is that after analyzing 32 separate studies between acrylamide and various cancers: “Fourteen cancer sites could be examined. No meaningful associations were found for most cancers considered.” Not all cancer-types were tested though, so the study continues. I remain cautious.
From a consumer-perspective, I also want to know how this compares to other foods. Through some basic research, I found that you get a lot of acrylamide from consumption of bread, biscuits and french fries as well as coffee. And high levels of the chemical are found in cigarette smokers.
No other state in the US is making this claim and the World Health Organization has taken coffee off of their warning list. Furthermore coffee has a lot of research of benefits in its favor — like improving heart health and lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Step 3: Analysis. In what world would this be true and in what would would it be untrue? What is the counterclaim?
California is notoriously stringent about its labeling because of Proposition 65 (more so than at the federal level), which requires the state to list any chemical that is potentially harmful. Most of the experiments used to determine these chemicals have been done on lab animals, given extremely high doses of x substance. I remember once eating a protein bar in Cali, and there was a warning label that said I could be at higher risk of cancer just from eating one bar.
Based on this research, I am still not 100% convinced that coffee is harmful but I recognize there could be some risk at higher doses. There still needs to be continued cancer-research on humans, so this is definitely worth following. In terms of action-steps, I don’t stop drinking coffee, but…
I’ll be aware of acrylamide in my diet and try to reduce it where I can, but I won’t become a nazi about it. This means not eating too much burnt toast or fried foods — not that those are a big part of my diet.
Nescafe instant coffee has some of the highest levels of acrylamide — so that’s at least one type to avoid.
I found a list of coffee brands with the lowest levels of acrylamide, so I’ll err on the side of caution and grab some Yuba Colombia roast or Starbucks dark roast.
It’s important to remember that we don’t always have to have an opinion on everything, and there are very few ‘ultimate truths.’ I’m sure in a few years we’ll have a much clearer picture of where coffee stands. Maybe coffee is good and maybe it’s bad, and that’s ok. For now, I’ll keep an eye on future studies and enjoy my morning brew.