What Is Acrylamide in Coffee? – Detailed GuidePublished Date:
Naturally, we all want to enjoy what we eat and drink because nourishing the body is so much more than just eating the right nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. If life was just about survival, then we’d all be eating nothing but tailor-made supplements to provide our bodies with the unique combination of nutrients it needs. It sounds pretty unappetizing, right?
Luckily for us, humans have evolved beyond just consuming what the body needs. Eating and drinking are as much about nourishing your soul as they are about nourishing your body. There’s nothing quite like the aromatic smell of freshly roasted coffee, the feel of that smooth, hot liquid in your mouth, or the rich, slightly bitter taste of the perfect cup of coffee. Roasted coffee is, simply put, the perfect way to wake up in the morning or to perk up in the afternoon.
But, once in a while, something crops up that puts a dampener on our enjoyment of certain things in life, including what we eat and drink. Every day, there’s a new health scare or reason for avoiding certain foods. For coffee, it’s the concern that we are potentially consuming too much acrylamide in coffee and what impact that might have on us and our bodies.
So, join us as we take a look at what is acrylamide, what is acrylamide in food, how much acrylamide there actually is in coffee, and what it does to the body, so you can make your own informed judgment.
What is Acrylamide?
So let’s roll our sleeves up and get down to business with “what is acrylamide?” Acrylamide is a white substance that can be used in a variety of manufacturing processes such as plastic, textile, and paper production. Completely odorless, it’s also used in the treatment of water. People who work in these industries must follow safety precautions to limit their exposure to acrylamide, as large doses may be harmful to human health.
But what does that have to do with acrylamide in coffee?
What Is Acrylamide In Food?
A good question, indeed.
In the early 21st century, acrylamide was detected in certain foods like acrylamide in potato chips, acrylamide in French fries, and yes, you guessed it, acrylamide in coffee. Acrylamide is a natural byproduct that occurs when cooking starchy foods at temperatures higher than 120°C. So, whilst acrylamide is not added to foods, it can be found in foods that have been baked, fried, or roasted at high temperatures. Many researchers believe that acrylamide is a byproduct of the Maillard Reaction, which is the chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its flavors, such as browned meat, the crusts of bread, and, of course, the rich, dark brown of roasted coffee beans that we all know and love.
As coffee beans are typically roasted at temperatures between 188-282°C, roasted coffee may also contain acrylamide as a result of the Maillard Reaction. So, that’s how you get acrylamide in coffee.
Is Acrylamide Bad For Me?
Since acrylamide was first discovered in foods, there have been various studies looking at what the potential health impacts may be, both in foods in general and also the impacts of coffee acrylamide, specifically. Some studies have suggested that exposure to high doses of acrylamide may cause cancer in animals. However, there is a lack of conclusive evidence to confirm that the lower levels of acrylamide present in processed foods also cause cancer in humans.
Having said that, organizations around the world, including Health Canada and the World Health Organization (WHO), suggest that acrylamide may be a health concern and exposure should be minimized as much as possible. In 2002, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN and the WHO published a paper, which noted that acrylamide would need to be consumed at a rate of 0.5mg*** /kg body weight/day, which is 500 times higher than the average dietary intake of acrylamide, for the toxin effects to impact on the human nervous system or fertility rates.
So, in short, acrylamide in food is not great for our bodies, but you’d have to consume a huge quantity of acrylamide in your food to have serious consequences. It all goes back to that old adage, “everything in moderation”, which is not an easy way to live in today’s world of mass consumption.
Is the Bad Press About Acrylamide Just Hype and Hysteria?
In 2005, the California Attorney General filed a lawsuit against four makers of french fries and potato chips. The aim of the lawsuit was to reduce the risk to consumers from consuming acrylamide in food. This lawsuit was settled in 2008, with the four food manufacturers agreeing to cut acrylamide levels within three years, in order to avoid a Proposition 65 warning label. The Proposition 65 warning label is used in California to warn consumers of potential exposure to certain chemicals that may cause cancer or birth defects.
A similar ruling in 2018 determined that the coffee industry had not provided enough evidence to demonstrate that acrylamide contents in coffee were at safe enough levels to avoid the Proposition 65 label. This would have meant that coffee products, including roasted coffee, would need to include a Proposition 65 label on their packaging, to warn of the levels of acrylamide in coffee. However, this ruling was overturned in 2020 and the Proposition 65 labels are no longer required.
Other similar actions have been taken across the world to warn consumers of the possible dangers of consuming too much acrylamide in their food.
Bear in mind that the earliest mention that acrylamide was detected in food substances was in 2002 by the Swedish National Food Administration, which is only 20 years ago. The reality is that there is still much that we don’t know about acrylamide in coffee and food and the impact it has on human health.
However, there is enough evidence to concern health organizations, many of which have issued warnings to consumers to minimize their acrylamide exposure. If you couple the fact that acrylamide is formed through high-temperature cooking processes, like frying foods, then it makes sense to restrict our intake, as many of these highly processed foods are also high in fat. Since 2012, Health Canada has permitted the use of food enzymes to reduce the rate of formulation of acrylamide.
So, How Much Acrylamide Is In Coffee?
Due to the high temperatures involved in the roasting process, it has been shown that roasted coffee contains acrylamide. However, the amount of acrylamide in coffee appears to vary, depending on the way the coffee was processed. Coffee substitutes like grain coffee came in highest, with coffee acrylamide levels at 818pg*/kg. This was followed by instant coffee, with coffee acrylamide levels at 358 μg**/kg and then roasted coffee at 179 μg/kg.
The same study indicated that there did not seem to be a significant variance in coffee acrylamide levels between different coffee bean species.
After all of that information, your knee-jerk reaction is probably to give up roasted coffee, right?
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Should I Stop Drinking Coffee?
So, we know about the quantity of acrylamide in coffee, on average. But how does that compare to the levels of acrylamide in other foods? And how much exposure to acrylamide is too much?
Studies have shown that the average acrylamide level in French fries is 337 μg/kg, whilst in potato chips, the average level of acrylamide is 998 μg/kg. That’s around 1.8 times and 5.5 times higher than the average levels of acrylamide found in roasted coffee, respectively. So, in general terms, there’s less acrylamide in coffee than in many other processed, starchy foods.
It’s also commonly accepted that coffee contains caffeine, and is one of the biggest sources of caffeine in our diets. It is believed that too much caffeine may contribute to health concerns such as anxiety, sleep problems, and feelings of restlessness.
Having said that, drinking coffee is also a source of antioxidants and various nutrients that are contained within coffee beans, such as potassium and magnesium, which our bodies need. Whilst too much caffeine is associated with various health concerns, consuming caffeine can also provide an energy boost and, sometimes, we could all just do with one of those!
On balance, cutting coffee out of our diets altogether may not be strictly necessary. Not only is there a potential risk of removing a good source of nutrition from your diet, but consider why you drink roasted coffee in the first place? Besides needing the occasional caffeine boost, drinking roasted coffee can have a positive effect on your mood as caffeine has been found to boost dopamine signaling in the brain. As we said at the beginning of our post, eating and drinking are about so much more than just providing the right nutrients to your body!
How Else Can I Manage My Coffee Acrylamide?
The biggest contributor to the amount of acrylamide in your roasted coffee is the roasting process, itself. At Portfolio, we take great care over the roasting process. Our lighter roasts have a shorter development time, which results in a roasted coffee with a complex flavor profile and a light body. Our medium roasts are allowed to develop flavor for longer, whilst our darker roasts are processed longer to allow the remaining sugar and acids to fully break down and caramelize. The outcome is a smokier-tasting roasted coffee.
It has generally been believed that darker roast coffees contain less acrylamide than lighter roast coffees. This seems a bit counterintuitive since you’d expect that darker roast coffees are roasted at a higher temperature and for longer. However, the levels of acrylamide in coffee are thought to peak early in the roasting process and then decline as it continues to be heated. This may suggest that drinking a darker coffee roast may reduce the amount of acrylamide that you consume via coffee.
However, more recent studies suggest that lighter roast coffees contain less acrylamide than darker roasts, as they are roasted at lower temperatures, for shorter periods of time. If this is the case, then it may suggest that you should lean towards a lighter roast for your daily cup of coffee.
Ensuring that you choose a good quality roasted coffee rather than instant coffee or a coffee substitute is another way that you can minimize your exposure to acrylamide via your daily cup of Joe. Coffee manufacturers can also help to reduce the levels of acrylamide in coffee by storing the coffee beans for longer periods of time before roasting, or by roasting the coffee beans at a lower temperature. Knowing how your roasted coffee is made is a great first step in being able to manage your intake of coffee acrylamide.
As we become increasingly conscious about what we put in our bodies, companies have recognized that there is a gap in the market to find ways to neutralize the risk of acrylamide exposure from our food. Companies around the world are conducting research on a daily basis to create enzymes that will reduce our exposure to acrylamide, with various patents registered.
The honest reality is that a lot more research needs to be done into the roasting process and the impact it has on the levels of acrylamide in coffee. One thing is clear – to manage your acrylamide exposure, you should eat a variety of healthy foods every day and limit how much highly processed food you eat, which is an approach supported by Health Canada.
Our Final Coffee Note on Acrylamide
Acrylamide is a chemical substance produced when food, including coffee beans, is cooked at high temperatures. This substance has been linked to various health concerns. Many of these health concerns are not yet supported with conclusive evidence. However, there are enough health concerns surrounding acrylamide in food that international health organizations have issued guidance to the general public to minimize exposure to acrylamide.
So while there is acrylamide in coffee, there are also a number of nutritional benefits to drinking coffee. To maximize the benefits of drinking coffee, as well as reducing your acrylamide intake, high-quality roasted coffee is a must. In short, enjoy your roasted coffee and savor it. But, like all things in life, moderation is key – roasted coffee should be consumed as part of an overall healthy and balanced diet.
* pg = picogram = 10-15 kg
** μg = microgram = 10-9 kg
*** mg = milligram = 10-6 kg