The dangerous ingredient you need to watch out for in coffee

Coffee has numerous health benefits, and you have probably heard of some of them. Coffee can improve cognitive function (via ScienceDirect), boost metabolic rate (via PubMed), and improve how well you exercise (via PubMed). Coffee can decrease the risk of dementia (via PubMed), Alzheimer's (via PubMed), and Parkinson's (via PubMed). It can also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes (via PubMed). People who drink coffee on a regular basis even seem to live longer than those who don't (via PubMed). 

With all of these health benefits of coffee, why shouldn't you drink it? Well, there is one ingredient that you should be aware of. It's called acrylamide, a potentially harmful chemical found in coffee. Acrylamide is a white crystal compound that is completely odorless that is also used in treating wastewater and in the making of plastics. Workers overexposed to acrylamide could see some damage to their nervous systems, according to PubMed (here and here), and can possibly increase your risk of getting cancer, according to PubMed. The chemical is also found in cigarette smoke, as well as in household and personal care items. 

So, why does acrylamide show up in coffee?

In 2002, Swedish scientists discovered acrylamide in coffee and baked goods and some other foods that are heated, according to PubMed. The scientists believe that this is caused by the heating of the food or beverage, which is called the Maillard reaction (via PubMed). This reaction occurs when amino acids and sugars are heated higher than 248 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, there is no way to remove the acrylamide from coffee as it's created when the beans are roasted, according to PubMed.  

It may have been recently discovered, but the chemical has always been there in heated foods and drinks, and if you drink coffee, you're also ingesting some acrylamide. What does matter is how much you are consuming, and recent studies have shown that not all coffees have the same amount of acrylamide (via PubMed). Researchers tested 44 different kinds of coffee, including coffee substitutes and instant coffee.

How much acrylamide is in your coffee?

They found that instant coffee contained 100 percent more acrylamide than fresh roasted coffee, and coffee substitutes had 300 percent more. So, fresh roasted coffee contained the least amount (179 mcg per kg), instant coffee was in the middle (358 mcg per kg), and coffee substitutes had the most (818 mcg per kg). The researchers also found that coffee beans that are roasted longer have less of the chemical, and darker beans also have less. 

While acrylamide could increase the risk of cancer in certain situations, drinking coffee has not been shown to cause cancer. In fact, it's been shown to reduce the risk of some types of cancers (via PubMed). Plus, the European Food Safety Authority claims people ingest less than the maximum recommendation. 

Should you stop drinking coffee? Everything in moderation, and the best way to ingest the least amount of acrylamide in your coffee is by drinking coffee made with fresh, dark beans that are roasted well — and keep in mind that more studies need to be done on acrylamide.