How dangerous is acrylamide, the potentially carcinogenic chemical in coffee?

If you’re currently living in California, acrylamide in coffee is big news today — because the chemical has led California to put cancer warnings on coffee. Since we’ve often been told that coffee is good for us (and may even help us live longer), this is somewhat of an unpleasant surprise.

Acrylamide is produced during the coffee bean roasting process, and thus is present in small amounts in the coffee we drink. So are acrylamide and cancer really linked? And should we stop drinking coffee altogether?

Firstly, acrylamide has been in coffee since people began drinking coffee — it’s nothing new. It’s not something that companies add in to make the drink tastier or more addictive. And it’s in a lot of other products as well. According to the National Cancer Institute, one of the biggest ways people are exposed is through cigarette smoke. But products like French fries, potato chips, bread, cookies, canned black olives, and even cereal contain acrylamide, meaning that coffee isn’t the only offender. Some workplaces also entail exposure, as acrylamide is often used to make plastics and paper, and is used to treat water.

So while acrylamide is worth looking into, you might not want to start a coffee ban just yet. The chemical is still being studied, but as of now, there’s not a big link between cancer and acrylamide — at least not in the amounts humans typically ingest.

"Most of the studies done so far have not found an increased risk of cancer in humans," says the American Cancer Society. "For some types of cancer, such as kidney, endometrial, and ovarian cancer, the results have been mixed, but there are currently no cancer types for which there is clearly an increased risk related to acrylamide intake."

Lab rats and mice have been tested to see if there is a link between acrylamide and cancer. The animals were given doses of the chemical at a rate between 1,000 to 10,000 more than what humans would usually ingest, and scientists did find a link. But again, those were extreme and unusual circumstances.

Basically, while we plan to keep an eye on this issue, no one should be panicking just yet (or giving up their beloved morning beverage).

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