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Is That Acrylamide in Your Coffee?

Posted on 05 April 2011

 

Now that I've talked you off coffee, let's dive deeper into some of the badness of the stuff. Do you recall the debate that surfaced in 2002 about a potential carcinogen found in fried foods, called acrylamide? There was much sound and fury when the discovery landed on front pages nine years ago, and like Japan's nuclear crisis, it all died down rather fast. Initially, acrylamide was thought to be mostly a problem in French fries (the most commonly eaten food in the US... um, how sad is that?) and potato chips, but it turns out to be present in both regular and decaffeinated coffee too. In fact, 20-40% of your acrylamide consumption appears to be from coffee. Yikers.

Who cares? I care. One study showed greater risk in women of uterine and ovarian cancer with increased acrylamide consumption. Not good.

Problem is this: proving carcinogenicity as causal in humans takes a long, long, long time, and more sinisterly, allows the big Agricultural complex lots of time to administer disinformation and quell fears. The Grocery Manufacturer's Association is one example of this type of campaign. and popped up as the top promoted site on my google search today. They are quick to quote talking heads with credentials (and on their payroll?) that there is no proven risk of acrylamides to humans.

Creepy. When this happens, when a deep-pocketed powerful lobby has a conflict of interest and the science is not fully formed, I favor the Precautionary Principle. In other words,  if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action, as offered up by Wikipedia.

I also favor the Swedish National Food Authority who first made the discovery of acrylamide in our food when carbs are heated with oil back in 2002. Here's a list of their publications and citations.

While data on human risk is mixed, I'm not so sure we've settled the issue. Even the erstwhile conservative National Institutes of Health states it is  ''reasonably anticipated'' that acrylamide is a human carcinogen. And the Environmental Protection Agency, considers acrylamide, which does cause cancer in test animals, a probable human carcinogen.

I tend to trust European sisters and brothers to uphold the precautionary principle to protect their people more than the US. For instance, they don't import cotton laced with DDT, another known carcinogen, but here in the US, we do. No surprise then that the European Chemicals Agency added acrylamide to the list of substances of very high concern in March 2010.

With thanks to my dear friend, brilliant psychiatrist Seth Robbins MD, who talked over a yummy, hopefully low-acrylamide meal last weekend at Plum about the acrylamide story with me.

Here's the chemical formula of acrylamide for my friends, the science geeks: C3H5NO.

I'll be writing more about acrylamide as I learn more about it, in the meantime, rethink that cup of Joe. And, as always, share with me your insights, concerns, knowledge, delicious coffee suggestions that are acrylamide-free, and general love. xoxox

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