coffee beans with toxic symbol

Coffee & Cancer Risk: 25 Brands With Low Acrylamide Levels

[toc]The evidence suggesting this substance is harmful to health just keeps piling up.

However the average Joe or Jane still thinks their chargrilled corn on the cob is healthy because it’s organic. That extra crispy pizza from the wood burning oven? Of course it must be healthy, because it’s made with USDA certified organic San Marzano tomatoes. The mozzarella was made with milk from grassfed cows!

Okay, maybe you’ve already stopped the French fries and other obvious food sources. Though giving up your morning cup of Joe is not as easy. Is there any evidence suggesting a specific link between coffee, acrylamide and cancer?

We have good news and bad news to report on that front.

The bad news

Currently, the U.S. federal government does not classify acrylamide as a carcinogen when it’s in food.

Yet ironically, it is classified as a “potential occupational carcinogen” by the The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is part of the CDC (1).

So in the workplace, if you get it on your skin from some sort of industrial application, that’s bad.

But in that same workplace, you could go to the breakroom and literally gobble down a heap of unfiltered coffee grinds and it would not be considered dangerous, so long as the acrylamide was not intentionally added to the roasted coffee beans (as in, it was naturally formed during roasting).

Seems strange, right?

cancer starts here parody

In the State of California though, it’s a different story.

The proposition 65 list consists of chemicals which are recognized by the state as causing cancer or that are toxic to reproductive health (2).

  • In 1990, the state added acrylamide to the list since lab experiments using animals suggested it causes cancer.
  • In 2011, it was also added under the category of being dangerous to reproductive health, as experiments suggested it mutated the DNA of baby rodents in the womb and led to their death.

IARC cancer ratingsThe International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization. They label it as being Group 2B, which means it’s “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (3).

Going back to the U.S. federal government, even though they have not said it causes cancer, in 2016 the FDA issued a 37 page guide for the food industry on various strategies of how to reduce acrylamide (4).

After going over things like cooked potatoes and baked cereals, they get to coffee on page 26. Here are the opening sentences of that section:

“Coffee is a significant source of acrylamide exposure for adults.  Limited information is available on factors known to affect acrylamide concentrations in coffee.”

Pretty depressing, huh? But wait, hope is not lost…

The good news

holding mug of coffeeBeing that it seems to be more addictive than crack cocaine, we would hate to tell you to quit your caffeine fix.

Luckily, we don’t have to tell you that.

As it turns out, how much acrylamide there is in coffee can be greatly mitigated by following several strategies, as well as buying the right brands and forms. Yes, based on testing there can be a big difference in levels depending on which you buy.

Is there an increased cancer risk in humans with acrylamide? That’s unknown but even if there is, as long as you prepare your cup of Joe the right way, then it really should be among the least of your concerns. The math below will show you why.

Before we get to the lowest acrylamide coffee recommendations, let’s go over the simple reduction tips which are universally applicable.

We will begin with the four recommendations contained in that aforementioned FDA document for the food industry.

1. Better to use dark roast vs. light roast

light and dark roast coffee beansYou won’t find it in raw green coffee beans. Rather, it’s formed while roasting. During that Maillard reaction and acrylamide formation which inevitably follows, you may be able to reduce how much there is by roasting more.

That seems counterintuitive, but the reason for that is because acrylamide forms early during the Maillard reaction (roasting). During the later stages, it’s actually broken down.

For this reason, how much acrylamide in coffee depends on how much it is roasted. Lighter roasts will have more, while darker roasts will have less, since the Maillard reactions are more complete in them.

2. Better to use Arabica vs. robusta

organic Arabica beansTaste aside, now you have yet one more reason to buy the more expensive bean type.

The guidance says there are “somewhat higher” levels in robusta beans. They didn’t disclose how much that is, but it’s likely more than a trivial amount for them to bother mentioning it.

Does Starbucks use robusta beans? No, they use 100% Arabica.

There are a few blogs accusing Starbucks of sneaking in robusta and the only “evidence” they share to support that allegation is because the caffeine content per ounce is so much higher than coffee from McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Burger King, and so forth. You see, robusta naturally has around 80% higher caffeine than Arabica, so these folks accuse Starbucks of doing a switcharoo.

Why does Starbucks coffee have more caffeine?

Starbucks coffee cupsFor one, make sure you are comparing equal sizes. Your medium – the Grande – is 16 ounces and that’s actually double the size of a standard serving of brewed coffee, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database (5). They say an average 8 ounce serving has 95 mg of caffeine.

A cup of Grande Pike Place has 330 mg of caffeine, but it’s 16 ounce. When adjusted for portion size, that’s 73% more than average.

But average (at least up until recent years) was typically 1 scoop of grind per 2 cups. Given how strong Starbucks taste, we’re willing to wager they’re using a higher amount of grind per cup. That explains the higher caffeine content per cup. Despite what some people allege, they are using 100% Arabica.

We digress, back to the issue…

3. Levels decline over time

calendar on iPadAgain, the FDA didn’t provide info as to how much they decline, but they did report that acrylamide levels in coffee will decrease during long term storage.

Does this mean you should keep bags in your cupboard for several months or longer before brewing them? Possibly, but more research is needed to know for sure.

Even with expensive gourmet blends, the expiration dates will be 10+ months out if they’re in vacuum sealed foil bags. Then again, inside an airtight environment, we would presume the degradation is much slower.

Another thing to factor in are the antioxidants and how those too may also degrade with time. As you likely know, those are the health benefit of drinking this every morning. In fact, studies have found that coffee is the #1 source of antioxidants in the American diet, not kale salads or other superfoods (the average American isn’t eating those regularly) (6).

Chlorogenic acid is the primary source of antioxidants in coffee. But unlike most veggies and fruits, the raw beans actually have less antioxidant content than roasted. A fair amount is actually created during the roasting process, as it breaks down the cholorogenic acid, which creates other potent antioxidants (7).

While there has been tons of research measuring the side effects of short term storage after brewing, very little has looked at the stability of the antioxidants over long periods of time before brewing. Fortunately, there was one study published in 2014 which addressed this topic (8). The findings were:

  • With open packs, after 6 months the ORAC value decreased by 49.9% at 20°C (68°F) and 21.6% at 4°C (39°F). With decaf, the reductions were 21.3% and 43.4%, respectively.
  • With closed vacuum-sealed packs, after 6 months both regular and decaf “did not present significant reductions” as seen in the following charts.

decrease in ORAC values of regular and decaf

Conclusion? If you adapt the FDA’s idea of long term storage, the good news is that the antioxidant content shouldn’t deteriorate significantly if it’s vacuum sealed.

However, we also don’t know if the FDA had vacuum sealed bags in mind, or if they were referencing the whole beans stored in a burlap bag. It may have been the latter, given that the document was directed towards the food industry. A burlap bag would expose the beans to the air, resulting in oxidation and lower antioxidant content over time.

4. Drinking brewed vs. espresso

Over a decade ago, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study which evaluated acrylamide and women’s breast cancer risk (9).

Specifically, Swedish women; data on 43,404 were evaluated from the years 1991 through 2002. At the start, their average age was 39.

During that time, out of the 43,304 women, there were 667 cases of breast cancer – about 1.5% got it. For all the women, their lifestyle and dietary habits were scrutinized.

breast cancer risk chartWhen it came to how much acrylamide they ate, here’s where it came from:

  • 54% from coffee
  • 12% from fried potatoes
  • 9% from crisp bread

But regardless of which foods or drinks it was coming from, how did all of that affect their rates of breast cancer?

As you see in the chart, those in the 20% highest quintile of acrylamide intake had a relative cancer risk which was 19% higher (that’s the dot all the way on the right side).

While that factoid and the chart may look troubling, after crunching the numbers and factoring in the margins of error, the final conclusion was:

“Compared with the lowest quintile of acrylamide intake, there was no significantly increased risk of breast cancer in the higher quintiles and no evidence of a linear dose response.”

Now keep in mind this study only evaluated breast cancer and not others, but regardless those results are good to hear.

Now here’s something the study didn’t talk about… the kinds of coffee these Swedish women drank.

If you’re ever been to Europe – and pretty much everywhere else outside of North America – then you already know how hard it is to order a normal cup of coffee.

espresso machineIf you order black coffee, they give you an Americano, which is an espresso shot mixed with hot water.

One of us here at Superfoodly was recently in London for a week and even at an $800/night hotel, black drip coffee was unobtainable. The only place in Soho which had it was Starbucks, but even those are hard to come by, given that Costa Coffee is the UK’s biggest chain.

A recent discussion with an Australian lady revealed that the only place she had ever seen a coffee machine (what we think of as one) has been on American TV and movies. She had never seen one in real life.

In that FDA report, they do mention that different preparations methods (like espresso vs. brewed) result in different levels of acrylamide. However, they don’t dive into the details and tell you which is better, but there is quite a bit of data elsewhere suggesting espresso is worse.

Why? Because most of this compound is in the ground bean. The problem with espresso versus brewed drip coffee is that you get more of the sediment in it. Likewise for French press.

American brewed coffee filters most out, but one can bet that is not what most of the Swedish women are drinking each morning. Would their dietary percentage of acrylamide from coffee be lower if they drank the filtered form?

That might be why the Swedish women were getting over half their acrylamide from this beverage. Since they didn’t address the forms they drank, it’s impossible to know for sure based on the study. However, we would be willing to wager that the espresso-based drinks have a lot to do with their high intake.

25 coffee brands with lowest acrylamide

To be clear, this is not an all-inclusive list. These are only the lowest brands within those which were tested by the FDA and they haven’t added to their data set for over a decade (10). Some niche brands are included, but obviously it wouldn’t be feasible for them to test the thousands of different roasters throughout the country.

Still, it provides helpful clues as to how much (or how little) you are getting from your morning brew. To keep comparisons consistent, the three following lists are excluding decaf and are only looking at the caffeinated versions.

25 Low Acrylamide Coffees (Dry Powder Before Brewing)
Rank Brand/Product Amount (parts per billion)
1. Yuban 100% Columbian 45-70 (multiple samples tested)
2. Hills Bros 100% Colombian 64
3. Seattle’s Best Medium Roast 91
4. McGarvey Twin Cities Blend 93
5. New England Coffee Co. French Roast 94
6. Hawaiian Isles Kona Sunrise 97
7. Starbucks French Roast 97-150 (multiple samples tested)
8. Aspen Select Texas Pecan Whole Bean Coffee 99
9. Harmony Bay Breakfast Blend 102
10. Cafe Bustelo Dark Roast 134-142 (multiple samples tested)
11. Medaglia D’Oro Caffe’ Espresso Coffee 144-194 (multiple samples tested)
12. Seaport 100% Pure Dark Roast 148
13. Hills Bros Coffee 149-191 (multiple samples tested)
14. Starbucks House Blend 151
15. Chock full o’ Nuts Rich French Roast 154-257
16. Starbucks Breakfast Blend 161
17. Starbucks Columbia Ground 163-175 (multiple samples tested)
18. Folgers French Roast 163-319
19. Cafe Oquendo 100% Pure Coffee 168
20. Maxwell House Original Signature 170-250
21. Caribou Coffee Rainforest Blend 180
22. Maxwell House French Roast 184-235 (multiple samples tested)
23. Super G Instant Coffee 188
24. Chock full o’Nuts All-Method Grind 197
25. Cafe Regil Rige Y Regira 100% Coffee 203

To reiterate, those measurements are for non-brewed coffees.

You may be surprised how some of the cheapest, most lowbrow brands actually make up many of the best ranked.

What’s interesting to note is how the most inconsistency is seen with the medium or semi-dark roasts. Remember, since the Maillard reaction creates acrylamide early on, we would expect to see that, since it’s closer to the half-way point of the process (versus dark roasts).

Lighter roasts tend to have more since they’re earlier on in the process, but they’re more consistent in their ranges.

10 brands with highest acrylamide

Using the same source, which brands tested out the worst? Here are the ten with the highest amounts measured.

10 Highest Acrylamide Coffees (Dry Powder, Before Brewing)
Rank Brand/Product Amount (parts per billion)
1. French Market Restaurant Blend Coffee and Chicory 609
2. Nescafe Classic Instant Coffee 471
3. Community Coffee & Chicory New Orleans Blend 459
4. Folgers Classic Roast Instant Coffee 458
5. Taster’s Choice Gourmet Roast Instant Coffee 411
6. Luzianne Coffee & Chicory (ground, not brewed) 380
7. Safeway Instant Coffee 377
8. Folgers Classic Roast 350-374 (multiple samples tested)
9. Melitta Traditional Premium Roast 332
10. Taster’s Choice Vanilla Roast Instant Coffee 286

As you see, 5 out of 10 on this list are the instant form. Given how it’s made, that is not surprising. Two of the most common ways to make it are:

  • Using liquid coffee and spraying it through very hot and dry air. Those two factors – concentrated high heat in conjunction with drying – are known to increase acrylamide formation. That’s why toast measures exponentially higher than bread.
  • Freeze drying, which leaves behind the powder.

instant coffee powderSince both of these processes can negatively affect the coffee flavor we are so accustomed to, sometimes a manufacturer will infuse the powder with aromatic compounds. Those might entail polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which can provide a smoky or burnt flavor (11). Similar to acrylamide, PAHs are yet another form of advanced glycation end products.

Being that it seems to have a different texture and taste, we would very much like to see a scientific review of Starbucks Via instant coffee. They obviously are using a more novel manufacturing method and perhaps, that results in lower amounts?

How much acrylamide there is in Folgers instant coffee and many other brands is comparable to traditional coffee after it is brewed. Why? Because the instant is more concentrated and hence, less is typically needed per cup. That makes the dosage per brewed cup very similar in many cases.

Acrylamide content after brewing

You can’t call this a list of the 15 lowest, because the FDA data set only had 15 entries for brewed, non-decaf coffee. So essentially, this is all of them.

Acrylamide Content In 15 Coffees After Brewing
Rank Brand/Product Amount (parts per billion)
1. 7-Eleven Regular 5
2. 7-Eleven French Roast 6
3. Cafe Bustelo Dark Roast 6
4. Medaglia D’oro Caffe’ Espresso Coffee 6
5. Folgers Classic Roast Instant Coffee 6
6. Nescafe Classic Instant Coffee 6
7. Safeway Instant Coffee 6
8. Taster’s Choice Gourmet Roast Instant Coffee 6
9. Starbucks Columbia 7
10. Maxwell House Master Blend 8
11. McDonald’s Regular 8
12. Starbucks (from coffee shop) 8
13. Dunkin’ Donuts Regular 8-10 (multiple samples tested)
14. Starbucks Coffee Lite Note (no longer made) 11
15. Folgers Classic Roast 13

While you do see one entry with the word espresso, please note they are not talking about an espresso shot or Americano. Rather, the above is for espresso bean grind (or espresso inspired) which are brewed like regular drip coffee.

The Starbucks Columbia is 163 ppb when it’s not brewed and after you make it, the concentration becomes 7 ppb. That’s almost a 96% reduction. Folgers, Maxwell House, and even generics like Safeway follow similar trends.

It’s not that there’s less after brewing, but that it’s diluted and represents a better picture of how much you are consuming relative to other foods.

The differences between say a 7-Eleven at 6 ppb and a Folgers medium roast at 13 are not worth caring about. Why? Because you have much bigger sources to worry about in your diet.

deep frying friesHere are 10 random food samples with higher amounts for comparison…

  • 36 ppb for un-toasted Pepperidge Farm white bread
  • 216 for toasted Pepperidge Farm white bread
  • 266 for Cheerios
  • 497 for McDonald’s French fries (the highest tested out of 7 locations)
  • 768 for Burger King hash browns
  • 1,265 for Kettle potato chips, lightly salted variety
  • 1,540 for Health Valley oat bran graham crackers
  • 1,970 for Trader Joe’s veggie chips potato snacks
  • 2,510 for Pringles BBQ flavor
  • 4,080 for Blue Mesa Grill sweet potato chips

As you can see, brewed American drip coffee should be among the least of your concerns.

Think about it… even if you only ate potato chips or fries once per month, that single serving might be more acrylamide than all of the coffee you drank during the prior 30 days!

When at restaurants, we always specify our breads to not be toasted. In our home kitchens, no one even has toasters. Simple steps like those are much more helpful and effective at lowering your intake, rather than forgoing the pleasure of coffee.

What do we drink?

Caffe Sanora coffeeWhile some antioxidants are created during the roasting process, others are destroyed.

The solution? There was patented process developed which involves soaking the raw green beans in water before roasting. Then after roasting, they re-soak the beans in that same water and allow them to dry.

The result is the best of both worlds – the antioxidants which were lost, as well as those which were created.

This brand is Caffe Sanora which is available in whole bean or you can get the ground version. This technology is also licensed to Life Extension and you can buy their organic ground coffee on Amazon.

The other benefit with this production method is that it makes it low acid. Friendlier on your stomach as well as your health.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.