Coffee – a Cup of Cancer?

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Brace yourself. Thanks to a court in California, your cup of coffee may soon come with a cancer warning. The potentially cancer-causing culprit in coffee is acrylamide. Though the court decision is not final yet, the news articles are both confusing and misleading. Acrylamide is far from unique to coffee. Plus, there are no convincing research studies that clearly show acrylamide causes cancer in humans.

Acrylamide and Cancer

The Food and Drug Administration considers acrylamide a health concern. The World Health Organization says acrylamide has the potential to cause cancer to humans. This does not mean it will cause cancer. Cancer is complex. Plus, in research studies, animals were given 1,000 to 10,000 times more acrylamide than the average person consumes each day! No studies to date show a clear increased risk of cancer in humans due to acrylamide. However, these studies have many limits including self-reported food intake (relying on people to remember how often they eat certain foods). According to the American Cancer Society, more studies are needed to evaluate how this compound is formed, how to decrease it and determine potential health risks.

Making matters more confusing, every person metabolizes acrylamide differently. Plus, animals and humans differ as well.

Sources of Acrylamide in Our Diet

Acrylamide forms during high heat cooking including frying, roasting and baking. Boiling and steaming do not typically form acrylamide. Grains and coffee are the foods & beverages that contain higher amounts of this compound. Dairy, meat and fish aren’t a concern. French fries and potato chips are the foods with the highest levels of acrylamide. From chip to chip or French fry to French fry the amount varies depending on how the food is cooked.

Blue Mesa Grill Sweet potato chips contain 16 times the amount of acrylamide as a single cup of Maxwell House original signature blend. Enjoy Rippin’ Good Ginger snap cookies and you’ll consume almost 4 times the amount of acrylamide compared to that cup of coffee from Maxwell House. Though cold brewing sounds like a solution, roasting coffee beans leads to acrylamide, not brewing at home. Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke are also routes to acrylamide intake. People who work in certain industries including construction, oil drilling, textiles, cosmetics food processing, mining, plastics and more may also be exposed to this compound.

For a list of acrylamide levels is in various foods click here.

Decreasing Your Exposure

Though there are a lot of unknowns and no studies to date that clearly indicate acrylamide contributes to or causes cancer, it makes sense to decrease exposure when possible and when it doing so doesn’t interfere with your enjoyment of food. Here’s how:

  • Eat a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, nuts and dairy.
  • Quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke.
    Limit fried foods.
  • Boil or steam instead of baking and frying when possible.
  • Soak potato slices in water for 15 to 30 minutes (drain, blot dry with a paper towel) before baking them.
  • Cook your baked goods for a shorter period of time. Don’t burn your bread in the toaster, pull it out when it is light brown. Also, don’t char foods on the grill.

Learn more about other compounds formed during high heat cooking by clicking here.

American Cancer Society
Curr Drug Metab. 2016;17(4):317-26.

Potato Chips and Heart Disease?

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Sure potato chips aren’t exactly a health food (though I did see sweet potato chips with 50% DV vitamin A today). But, here’s another twist on some tasty snacks – potato chips, fries and baked goods contain a substance formed during cooking that could not only be carcinogenic but may increase your risk of developing heart disease.

Scientists have known for quite some time that acrylamides, chemical compounds formed when carbohydrate-rich food is baked or fried at a high temperature, are potentially carcinogenic. The worst offender: French fries. Potato chips are next followed by canned black olives (oddly enough). Even breakfast cereals have some acrylamides in them.

For years the World Health Organization and other health groups have discussed the potential health risks associated with acrylamides. Now, however, there’s a new one and it is already the #1 cause of death in men and women in the U.S. – heart disease. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that subjects who ingested fairly significant quantities of potato chips for 4 weeks had adverse changes in various cardiovascular risk factors including oxidized LDL and inflammatory markers. Longer term studies examining food intake and cardiovascular disease are likely to get underway in coming years.

So what can you do to avoid acrylamides? Minimize your consumption of foods like potato chips, french fries and those burnt pie crusts or cookies. Oh, and quit smoking – yes, smoking is a major source of acrylamide exposure.

As a kid I loved the burnt pie crust, the darker parts of the crust on bread, and of course, potato chips. Over the years I learned that those certainly weren’t the best foods for me so I’ve cut them down dramatically. Luckily, I’ve cut down my acrylamide exposure as well.

A Drink a Day = Cancer?

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Once people find out I’m a dietitian, they typically tell me that alcohol is good for them. This scenario often occurs at a bar, after their 2nd or 3rd glass of red wine. “It’s good for my heart!” they exclaim.

Sorry to burst your bubble however, a new study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that low to moderate alcohol consumption increases risk of certain types of cancers. Increasing alcohol consumption was associated with an increased risk of cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, esophagus, rectum, liver, breast and total cancer. These trends were the same regardless of the type of alcohol consumed. That’s right, it doesn’t matter if you do consume red wine, your risk of these cancers will increase with just one drink per day.

Let me emphasize that this was no small study. It examined nearly 1.3 million British women. And, by further examining the data and relating it to cancer incidence in the U.S., the researchers found that about 11% of all breast cancers are related to low to moderate alcohol consumption and 5% of all cancers in females here result from low to moderate consumption.

Consider this beverage for thought. You may think “well, cancer doesn’t run in my family.” But, many cancers have no genetic component whatsoever (see for more information). And, alcohol is indeed empty calories with no nutrition value whatsoever. If you drink, don’t do so in moderation, do so on occasion….