Coffee, acrylamide, and the cult of false-equivalence

It seems the anti-science movement has gained some momentum lately, as lawmakers, disdainful of evidence-backed data, make decisions that are at best stupid, and at worse, harmful to public health.
Such is the case with the pending judicial decision in California, related to Prop 65, which would require coffee sellers to post warnings about the fact that coffee contains acrylamide---which according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is a probable carcinogen in humans. Note that this conclusion is based on studies involving rats mega-dosed with acrylamide in controlled pre-clinical studies.

Acrylamide Schmahilatide
What exactly is acrylamide? According to the American Cancer Society, acrylamide is a chemical byproduct of frying, baking, or roasting certain starchy foods at high temps (microwaving and boiling don’t produce acrylamide). Not only is acrylamide found in roughly 40% of all calories consumed by humans, it is also found in cigarette smoke and some adhesives and packaging materials.

In 1986, California lawmakers implemented Proposition 65, which requires the state to keep a list of harmful chemicals that could lead to cancer, reproductive harm, or birth defects. There are at least 1,000 chemicals on that list, including alcohol, which, according to Prop 65, causes cancer and birth defects; bisphenol A; mercury; and lead.  Here is a comprehensive list.

As for food and beverages, the highest amounts of acrylamide can be found in French fries, chips, roasted asparagus, roasted nuts, prune juice, toast, breakfast cereal—and coffee. However, real-world evidence just doesn’t support the idea that eating asparagus and nuts, while drinking coffee, gives you cancer.

The cult of false equivalence—alcohol, cannabis, and coffee
In contrast to coffee, which has been shown in well-designed, meta-analyses to increase human lifespan, alcohol is the second leading cause of death in the world. Its consumption is responsible for 15% of all breast cancer, and largely responsible for most head, neck, throat, and liver cancers, as well as other cancers, and cirrhosis. But the headlines don’t scream about alcohol the way they do about coffee.

In my opinion, there are 3 main reasons: First of all, the alcohol industry has formidable leverage and power, second, heavy drinkers (more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 for men is considered heavy drinking, but moderate consumption is considered okay) are loathe to admit that their addiction to alcohol could be the reason they are sick, or the reason they die prematurely, and third, there is a long history of demonizing coffee and equating its consumption with that of alcohol and cigarettes.  This is called false equivalence.

False equivalence is a logical fallacy in which two completely different things appear to be logically equivalent even if they are not. As science has fallen by the wayside under the current administration, false equivalence has become a common way of arguing. “Hey, that guy got cancer from drinking too much alcohol, or that lady got raped when she left the bar drunk with some random guy…Well guess what, marijuana is ILLEGAL (in many places), so when you smoke a lot you won’t die or even get sick, but you could get arrested—unless you have cancer, in which case you can use it legally and therapeutically, along with your coffee. So it’s the same thing. Right? ”

Why does coffee continue to get a bad rap?
Over the years, despite efforts to demonize coffee, attributing to it an increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and even impotence and sexual deviousness, twenty-first-century science has shown that it decreases the risk of numerous cancers, as well as neurologic diseases, stroke, and obesity, as discussed in a peer-reviewed article in the New England Journal of Medicine

You can even see it playing out in politics. When racist incidents that happened in Starbucks went viral, people were ready to boycott and write Starbucks off as a big, behemoth, racist corporation (the case involving the two young men in Philadelphia has since been resolved; Starbucks is way ahead of the curve with this issue).

But go to any inner-city African-American neighborhood---liquor ads everywhere, and not a peep from many of the same folks who are telling everyone to ‘stay woke’ and boycott Starbucks, all the while continuing to drink their lives away. Who cares about the extremely racist implications of alcohol advertising in residential neighborhoods? After all, it’s much easier to keep people down with enough alcohol, television, and junk food—keep ‘em fat, happy, and drunk. But Starbucks---OMG, be careful….they want to fill you with caffeine and (gasp) you may even get some ambition. And if Starbucks moves into your neighborhood, then what? (Increased property values…how dare they.)

False equivalence can kill you---so don’t worry about the red herring of acrylamide warnings on coffee.  Drink up. Happy spring to all of my coffee-drinking brothers and sisters everywhere!


jessica said…
So thoroughly and thoughtfully researched, as always! So glad you covered this topic -- you killed it. ;)
Nicole Gray said…
Thank you, Jessica! The NYT editorial really provided some important insights.

Popular posts from this blog

Coffee Prices Explode & Global Coffee Gratitude

Happiness Is…Buying a New Coffee Maker & Getting a Refund for the Old One

Who is Juan Valdez and why I drink instant coffee