What We Know About Coffee & Toast's Link With Cancer

produced by Megan Madden; photographed by Nicole Maroon.
UPDATE: Last month, a Los Angeles judge ruled that any coffee sold needs to come with a cancer warning. The judge argued that coffee companies have failed to show that acrylamide, a compound produced during roasting, doesn’t pose a significant health risk. As you can image, it’s more complicated than that. This story was originally published on January 23, 2017, but we’re updating it in light of this latest coffee cancer frenzy. Read the original story below.
Breakfast lovers of the world woke up to a troubling message this morning: The U.K.'s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has joined the FDA in advising against toasting your bread too much due to a potentially increased risk for cancer. But how much do you actually need to worry if you (like this author) prefer your toast on the charred-as-the-depths-of-hell end of the spectrum?
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The idea behind the recommendation is that, when we cook food, that process causes the amino acids, sugar, and water present in that food to produce a new compound: acrylamide. In fact, a lot of foods we eat regularly contain acrylamide, including coffee, peanut butter, cookies, cakes, and potato chips. Basically anything starchy that gets cooked, roasted, or fried is gonna have it.
There are some animal studies that suggest a link between consuming large amounts of acrylamide and the development of tumors. So the FSA recommends "going for gold" and keeping your toast from getting brown.
However, there's no conclusive evidence of the same link in humans. And, as David Spiegelhalter, PhD, an expert in communicating public health risks, told the BBC, the FSA recommendations really don't make that research gap clear. "Even adults with the highest consumption of acrylamide would need to consume 160 times [that amount] to reach a level that might cause increased tumors in mice," he said.
That means that, unless your diet consists solely of burnt carbs in various forms (which would be worrying for other reasons), it doesn't seem like you need to follow the FSA's recommendation 100% seriously. But if you already have an increased risk for cancer (e.g. a family history), it may still be worth it to keep tabs on your acrylamide consumption. Even though it's pretty much impossible to totally cut it out, being aware of that — and how your other food and drink choices affect your health risks — can help you stay your healthiest.
As always, eating a balanced diet (yay for fruits and veggies) and opting for steaming or boiling rather than frying are good ideas. But not necessarily because they'll lower your acrylamide intake. So, seriously, go ahead and enjoy your weekend avocado toast — even if you prefer said toast closer to black than golden.
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