Acrylamide has been in the news since the early 2000s. Since then, its reputation as a potential health hazard has grown, most recently when it comes to coffee.
We explore what you should know about acrylamide in food and what that means about the coffee you buy.
What is Acrylamide?
Acrylamide is an odorless, water-soluble chemical and naturally-occurring substance (C₃H₅NO) that forms as a white, crystalline solid or flake-like crystals.
As a chemical it's primarily used in manufacturing to make products like paper, dyes, and plastics as well as wastewater treatment. Trace amounts can also be found in some consumer products like food packaging and some adhesives.
However the same chemical is also naturally produced when you fry, roast or bake certain plant-based starchy foods including grains, potatoes and coffee.
Frying food typically creates the most acrylamide. As food is heated, sugars and an amino acid (asparagine) combine to produce acrylamide. In general, the more you heat starchy foods, the more acrylamide is produced.
What Foods Contain The Most Acrylamide?
Some food contains more acrylamide than others, namely certain potato products that have been fried or roasted like French fries and potato chips, coffee, and grain-based food like cereal, cookies, and toast.
Storing raw potatoes in the refrigerator can concentrate the amount of asparagine, the amino acid that combines with sugars to create acrylamide when heated.
The same amino acid is also present in plants like asparagus. However the amount of asparagine in these foods is considered too low to pose a health risk based on normal levels of consumption.
Does Acrylamide Cause Cancer?
How Much Acrylamide Is Safe to Consume?
Since the chemical is a natural product of heating many foods, it's almost impossible to avoid.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides guidance on safe daily exposure to acrylamide in food and beyond. Its Reference Dose (RfD) for acrylamide is 0.0002 milligrams per kilogram body weight per day (mg/kg/d.
In both these cases eating a balanced and healthy diet is a way to avoid over-eating the types of foods linked to this chemical.
Acrylamide in Coffee
Coffee's relationship with acrylamide certainly is contentions, though by no means different to that of potatoes or other starchy foods.
Just like other starchy foods, acrylamide forms in coffee when it's roasted, not brewed. Its production is linked to the natural browning process, known as the Maillard reaction, that turns food - including coffee - golden brown when heated. In coffee this is referred to as the "roast profile". As beans are heated this triggers interactions between amino acids and sugars, visible to the eye as a browning (or roast) effect.
While acrylamide is formed by the roasting process, it begins to degrades as the roasting process continues. Typically, the darker the roast and the less acrylamide with however a significant tradeoff in other bioactive compounds and arguably taste.
Should Coffee Contain an Acrylamide Health Warning?
While drinking a cup of coffee is unlikely to do any long-term damage, some States and organizations feel more strongly than others about pointing out the potential risks to the consumer.
The State of California, for example, has been engaged in a long legal battle with coffee companies like Starbucks to force them to add a cancer warning to their coffee. This is governed by the terms of the State's Proposition 65, an initiative designed to regulate inhabitants' exposure safe drinking water and levels of toxic chemicals.
In the meantime coffee has also been lauded by scientists for a range of health benefits including heart and brain health, not to mention the daily happiness it brings to fans of the beverage!
Similarly the amount of acrylamide someone is exposed to is tied to how much coffee, as with other foods, they typically consume. The more coffee, friend foods and beyond someone drinks, the more likely they are to come into contact with acrylamide.
Ultimately, as with other foods, you'd have to consume a lot of coffee in your lifetime for it to pose any concern to health.
We hope you found this article informative.