Health Concerns of Acrylamide and Caffeine in Coffee. How Much is Too Much?

Health concerns on drinking coffee

For most people on the go, the importance of a morning cup of coffee cannot be overstated. And in today's world of depressing news, there is nothing better to start our day than a cup of coffee.

Apart from the relaxing aroma, this breakfast staple gives us a daily dose of energy. However, as with most things on earth, drinking coffee has a bad side as it has potential health risks. Coffee, irrespective of how it is processed, contains acrylamide and caffeine according to coffee research studies. 

Health concerns on drinking coffee

The Acrylamide in coffee

Instant coffee has a lower caffeine content but has a higher concentration of acrylamide, while freshly brewed coffee is higher in caffeine but lower in acrylamide. 

According to Health Line, the chemical acrylamide, or acrylic amide, is a white, odorless, crystal compound used to make plastics and treat drinking water. 

Acrylamide is a byproduct of a roasting process, it is present in coffee once beans are roasted, so when we drink coffee, we are exposing ourselves to acrylamide.

According to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, "acrylamide is a chemical that can form when certain starchy foods are cooked or processed. While there's no direct evidence that acrylamide can cause cancer in humans, there is evidence it can cause cancer in laboratory animals".

Which types of coffee contain acrylamide?

An article published by Medical News Today, says that acrylamide is present in any type of coffee product that derives from roasted coffee beans. 

Coffee substitutes, such as cereal and chicory root coffees, that have undergone a roasting process, also contain acrylamide. 

The amount of acrylamide in these different types of coffee can vary. It depends on the roasting time rather than the bean variety.

Based on the 2013 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, coffee substitutes, such as those deriving from grains and chicory root, contained the highest concentration of acrylamide, at 818 micrograms per kilogram (mcg/kg), instant coffee contained 358 mcg/kg of acrylamide, while natural roasted coffee contained the least amount of acrylamide, at 179 mcg/kg.

Thus, a single cup of coffee (160 ml) delivered on average from 0.45mg acrylamide in roasted coffee to 3.21mg in coffee substitutes. 

The same study reported that there was no significant difference in acrylamide content between different types of coffee beans.

Health concerns on drinking coffee

So is it safe to drink coffee?

A research study suggests that drinking coffee in moderation is generally safe and may even have a range of health benefits.

Although coffee contains potentially harmful chemicals such as acrylamide, they did not find a link between drinking coffee and an increased risk of cancer. 

In fact, they found evidence to suggest that coffee consumption may reduce a person’s risk of developing colorectal cancer, liver cancer, and breast cancer.

They also found an association between drinking coffee and a lower risk of certain types of cancers and chronic illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease, and depression.

The only type of coffee that does not contain acrylamide is the unroasted bean variety but these coffees can taste very different from roasted varieties.

Health concerns on drinking coffee

Acrylamide is present in a variety of cooked and baked foods

We are not safe anyway from acrylamide. When we cook certain types of starchy food at high temperatures, it will produce small quantities of acrylamide. Scientists call this chemical process the Maillard reaction.

The Maillard reaction is the chemical reaction that occurs in the presence of heat between amino acids and reducing sugars that results in food browning, thereby producing fresh aromas and flavors. The building blocks of proteins that can be contained in our diet are amino acids.

Apart from coffee, foods that can contain acrylamide include breakfast cereals, and baked goods such as bread, cake, potato chips, French fries, burgers, cookies, and biscuits, among others. Acrylamide is also present in drinking water.

However, although there are concerns that acrylamide may be carcinogenic, most research suggests that coffee may actually protect against a number of different cancers and other conditions and that drinking coffee in moderation is generally safe.

Health concerns on drinking coffee

But how about caffeine content?

Apart from the health concerns of acrylamide, coffee also contains caffeine, which is another health-concern substance. Taking caffeine in large doses can be fatal.

According to the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, for healthy adults, the safest caffeine intake is up to 400 milligrams a day—that's about four or five cups of coffee — as an amount not generally associated with dangerous, negative effects.

This study was backed up by Mayo Clinic, which says, 400 milligrams of caffeine a day appears to be safe for most healthy adults. 

That's roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola, or two "energy shot" drinks. But remember that the actual caffeine content in beverages varies widely, especially among energy drinks.

Moderation is important with any caffeinated product. Excess caffeine can raise blood pressure, and cause insomnia, jitters, increased heart rate, headaches, and nausea.

But while freshly brewed coffee contains high caffeine, instant coffee is found to have lesser caffeine content. This is because caffeine is extracted from the ground coffee during the brewing process,

A cup of instant coffee contains 60-80mg of caffeine, while freshly brewed coffee made from ground beans contains 80-120mg of caffeine. 

Health experts also suggested that one should never drink coffee on an empty stomach because coffee triggers acid production which may result in abdominal discomfort and heartburn.

So is coffee good or bad for our health?

Despite the presence of caffeine and acrylamide, coffee, however, contains antioxidants and other active substances that may reduce internal inflammation, according to nutrition experts from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

In an article published online by the Harvard School of Public Health, recent research about coffee provides strong evidence that drinking coffee actually has a variety of health benefits.

The overall evidence has been pretty convincing that coffee has been more healthful than harmful in terms of health outcomes,” said Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an April 5, 2021, article in Discover. “For most people, moderate coffee consumption can be incorporated into a healthy diet.”

Hu said that moderate coffee intake—about 2–5 cups a day—is linked to a lower likelihood of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, liver, and endometrial cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and depression. And even possible that people who drink coffee can reduce their risk of early death.

The cholesterol in coffee

According to Medical News Today, drinking coffee can affect cholesterol levels, but it may depend on the brewing method. 

For example, unfiltered which includes Turkish-style brews and French press (a coffee brewing device made from metal or glass) coffee may raise cholesterol levels, while instant and filtered coffee are less likely to affect them.

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that plays many essential roles in the body at healthy levels. It travels through the bloodstream as part of molecules called lipoproteins. 

There are two main types of lipoproteins in the blood: 

  • LDL or Low-density lipoprotein: Some people call this “bad” cholesterol. It plays a key role in plaque buildup in the arteries.
  • HDL or High-density lipoprotein: Some people call this “good” cholesterol. It helps remove cholesterol from the body. 

When LDL cholesterol levels are too high, plaque builds up in the arteries. If the plaque accumulates enough to obstruct blood flow, it becomes dangerous, as it can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

While coffee does not contain cholesterol, it can affect cholesterol levels. The diterpenes in coffee suppress the body’s production of substances involved in cholesterol breakdown, causing cholesterol to increase. Specifically, coffee diterpenes may cause an increase in total cholesterol and LDL levels.

However, according to older research studies, it is not the amount of caffeine in coffee that may affect cholesterol levels but rather the oils that naturally occur in the coffee beans. These natural oils, also known as diterpenes, are cafestol and kahweol.

The Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (ISIC) agrees that both oils can raise total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, although the amount of diterpenes in coffee varies with the brewing method.

For example, if a person makes coffee using paper filters, most of the diterpenes remain in the filter. However, in unfiltered coffee, more of the diterpenes pass through into the coffee.

Health concerns on drinking coffee
An example of a French press coffee maker

Scandinavian boiled coffee, Turkish coffee, and French press coffee can increase cholesterol, according to a 2011 study. Scandinavian and Turkish coffee are unfiltered, while coffee made with a French press passes through a metal filter that allows more of the diterpenes to pass into the brew than paper filters.

Other types of brewed coffee contain varying levels of diterpenes and therefore have various effects on cholesterol levels:

Espresso: This type of coffee has about half the amount of diterpenes found in unfiltered coffee. Because people generally drink small servings of espresso, it will likely have little effect on cholesterol.

Filtered coffee: It likely has little effect on cholesterol. However, research on this type of coffee is not consistent.

Instant coffee: This coffee type contains very few diterpenes, so it should not raise cholesterol.

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