The Truth about Coffee and Cancer

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Last week, a judge in California ruled that coffee should carry a cancer warning label. The ruling says that Starbucks, 7-11, and other coffee retailers must carry a warning label on every cup of coffee sold, due to the acrylamide content in the coffee.

What is acrylamide? Acrylamide is a compound that results from the roasting process of coffee. It is the result of high heat or prolonged cooking. Acrylamides are present in many of our foods including: french fries, potato chips, corn chips, cereal, breads, cookies, crackers, beer and more.

Starchy carbohydrates cooked at high temperatures, especially those that are cooked to a golden brown or dark brown color usually contain the highest amounts of acrylamides. Potato chips and french fries are, by far, some of the worst offenders. Take a look at some of these levels (amounts are approximate, and depend on cooking time and heat):

  • Potato chips – 546 micrograms/kg
  • French fries – 698 micrograms/kg
  • Breakfast cereal – 131 micrograms/kg
  • Coffee – 8 micrograms/kg

Acrylamide’s were discovered in 2002 and have been found in many foods that are heated above 120 degrees or cooked to a golden brown. Starbucks and many other (dark roast) coffees are often roasted to a deep brown color, thereby increasing their acrylamide content.

The acrylamide controversy has been a part of an eight-year struggle between the Council for Education and Research on Toxics and the big coffee companies like Starbucks. California’s proposition 65, which was passed in 1986, puts cancer warnings on many substances; some of them worthy, some ridiculous.

The World Health Organization, (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated that levels of acrylamides in certain foods pose a “major concern” and more research is needed to determine the dangers. Since french fries, potato chips and cereals contain much higher amounts of acrylamides, it seems a bit silly to have this warning on coffee but no other foods.

A few studies concluded there was an increased cancer risk in mice and rats fed acrylamide, but those studies used levels of acrylamide that was between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than levels people get from food. Thus far, there have not been very convincing studies in humans to demonstrate that acrylamide is indeed a carcinogen. In fact, a review of more than 1,000 studies failed to find a consistent link between drinking coffee and at least 20 different types of cancer, according to scientists from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a WHO group.

Len Lichtenfeld, the deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta says, “Most experts are going to look at the risk of acrylamide in coffee and conclude that this is not something that’s going to have a meaningful impact on human health.”

The fact of the matter is, coffee drinking, especially organic coffee, grown at high altitudes, has numerous scientifically supported major health benefits. Cancer prevention is very high on coffee’s list of attributes.

Coffee has been shown to protect the liver against cancer because of its caffeine content, cholorogenic acid and substances called diterpenes. Coffee also protects post-menopausal women against breast cancer. Those women who drank the equivalent of four cups a day actually had a 10% lower risk of breast cancer. Women drinking coffee also had a significantly less risk of endometrial cancer, and uterine cancer, according to the Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention journal.

You can also add oral, gastric, and colon cancer protection to that growing list as well—especially the lighter roasts. While the darker roasts had similar anti-cancer properties, the lighter roasts won out for the highest protective factors.

Coffee contains a variety of powerful antioxidants, as I have written about earlier, that contain a variety of massive health benefits—far greater than any perceived risk of cancer from the acrylamides it contains. Several studies from around the world including France, Japan, Poland and Spain, have concluded that coffee is one of the biggest single sources of antioxidants in our diets. According to the October 2015 issue of Science News, and other important nutrition and scientific journals, coffee protects a wide variety of major health issues. Some of those include:

  • Type 2 DiabetesStudies suggest that drinking 3-4 cups of coffee per day is associated with a 25% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, compared to consuming none or less than 2 cups per day. Research suggests a dose responsive relationship with coffee.
  • Parkinson’s–In a prospective study, people who drank about four cups of caffeinated coffee daily were one-fourth less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than those who drank very little, researchers reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2012.
  • Dementia–In a 2012 study, researchers monitored 32 older people with mild cognitive impairment. The individuals who had the highest levels of caffeine were less likely to progress to dementia, than those who did not ingest caffeine, scientists reported in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is thought that the poly­phenols, in addition to the caffeine in the coffee helped with brain function.
  • Depression–In a 10-year study of 50,000 U.S. women, those drinking four cups of caffeinated coffee a day were 20 percent less likely to have depression than those consuming very little, according to a report in Archives of Internal Medicine in 2011.
  • Heart disease and stroke–Demographic studies suggest coffee offers protection against heart disease by helping to prevent blood clots.
  • Kidney function–A group of young people drank three cups of coffee a day, and showed significant improved kidney function, according to Japanese researchers reported in 2011 in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism.

Coffee helps to activate the NRF2 pathway in the body, a system that fights oxidative stress, neutralizes toxins, and targets cancer cells. The NRF2 pathway has been identified as being one of the most important anti-aging and disease-fighting components in the human body.

In the intestines, coffee helps to encourage the growth of beneficial Bifidobacteria, part of a healthy microbiome. These little critters help to regulate and protect the digestive system, immune function, and mental health.

Coffee is a fat-burning beverage, increasing heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and metabolism—meaning you actually burn more calories. Caffeine is also excellent for keto dieters–breaking down fat cells more efficiently and freeing up fats in the body to burn for energy. In fact, converting fat to energy is 30% more effective with caffeine.

Coffee also elevates your mood, banishes depression, and helps you feel more energetic, but be careful—too much can cause jitteriness and anxiety.

Coffee is known to improve athletic performance as well. Caffeine has been shown repeatedly to increase endurance, speed, power, and shorten recovery time. While part of this is due to the effect of caffeine, another part may be due to the high levels of antioxidants in coffee. So, a cup of ‘joe’ before your workout or competition will help you go harder and longer!

This recent report from Purdue University shows coffee as being one of the richest sources of polyphenols (antioxidants) in the Western diet. Coffee contains abundant levels of phenolics, chlorogenic acid, and caffeic acid. Coffee also helps to decrease inflammatory markers, including interleukin-18 and 8-isoprostane.

Coffee protects your health by reducing adiponectin levels by 6 or more percent. Low levels of adiponectin are associated with obesity, diabetes, inflammation, lipid abnormalities, insulin resistance and NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease),) heart disease, and cancer.

How to Maximize the Health Benefits of Your Coffee

  • Use fresh, whole, ORGANIC, LIGHT ROASTED beans which maximizes the antioxidants in the coffee and minimizes toxins. The type of coffee you buy and drink makes a huge difference, as it does for many other foods. Coffee is often highly sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, so it is best to drink organic coffee if at all possible.
  • Drink your coffee black. Avoid adding refined sugar, artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners, or fake non-dairy ‘creamer’. For natural sweetness, try a drizzle of maple syrup, stevia, or coconut sugar. Organic, REAL grass-fed cream is divine if you can get it. Coconut cream is also luscious and loaded with healthy, fat burning medium chain triglycerides, to help you burn fat and boost metabolism. Add a dollop of grass-fed butter and coconut oil to your coffee and blend into a froth.
  • Avoid coffee from Starbucks and other big chain coffee shops. Coffee from these chain stores is usually dark roasted and higher in acrylamides. In addition, these coffees are generally NOT organic, and full of pesticides and herbicides. Purchasing organic coffee grown at high altitudes means that it contains the highest levels of antioxidants.
  • Boost the antioxidant power by adding cinnamon, which also helps control blood sugar and has many other benefits. Organic cocoa powder is another delicious and healthy addition to your morning coffee. Cocoa is high in magnesium, antioxidants, and helps lower blood pressure.

Bottom line is that coffee consumption was associated with a lower risk of death, overall. Given all the above scientific studies on coffee and health, don’t you find the recent California ruling for a warning label on coffee a bit ridiculous? I do. I can only conclude that this particular judge just does not like coffee. If you are concerned about the (dubious) connection between acrylamides and cancer, avoid french fries, potato and corn chips, cereals, bread, cookies and crackers. They contain much higher levels of acrylamides. Those processed grain-based foods have already been shown to be detrimental to your health, and arylamide is just one more reason to avoid those foods.

Enjoy sipping your organic coffee and worry not! Here’s to your health and wellbeing!

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