The link between acrylamide, coffee, and cancer: Here’s what scientists know (and don’t know)

A judge in California ruled this week that Starbucks, 7-Eleven, and many other businesses that sell coffee need to warn consumers via food labels about the ingestion of acrylamide.

California’s Prop 65 states that businesses selling products that contain one or more of 65 chemicals shown by scientists to cause cancer and/or reproductive disease must give customers a “clear and reasonable” heads up.

The judge wrote regarding the lawsuit that, essentially, the defendants couldn’t prove that acrylamide levels in their coffee weren’t below the levels deemed dangerous according to Prop 65 (which, looking it up, appears to be 0.2 micrograms/day for cancer, and 140μg/day for reproductive disease, where a warning label is needed if more than 1/1000th of this — i.e. 0.14μg/day — is exposed to people).

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So, how much is in our coffee? How does it get in there? Where did the 0.2 μg/day and 0.14μg/day levels come from? What happens if we consume more than this? What data supports the link to cancer?

Let’s dive into it.

What is acrylamide?

When I first read the headlines, I immediately thought of my past research days doing gel electrophoresis, which involved using acrylamide to make polymeric gels suitable for separating proteins of varying size in an electric field.

Outside of molecular biology labs, however, acrylamide can be found in binding/thickening agents used in “grout, cement, sewage/wastewater treatment, pesticide formulations, cosmetics, sugar manufacturing, soil erosion prevention, ore processing, food packaging, plastic products, and paper production.”

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