Let's Be Sure Acrylamide Is A Threat Before Requiring Labels

by Kevin Daw
Posted On: 11/22/2017

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It has been quite awhile since I wrote on the potential issues acrylamide represents to our industry, but it sounds like, after several years, things are coming closer to a head, at least in California. I was surprised when I looked back in search of my previous article on this subject. It has been more than six years since it first came up.

Acrylamide is a chemical compound that can be found in any foods that are cooked above 248°F. It is formed during the browning process in foods including French fries, bread and coffee. As described by the National Cancer Institute:

Researchers in Europe and the United States have found acrylamide in certain foods that were heated to a temperature above 120° Celsius (248°F), but not in foods prepared below this temperature. Potato chips and French fries were found to contain higher levels of acrylamide compared with other foods. The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stated that the levels of acrylamide in foods pose a "major concern" and that more research is needed to determine the risk of dietary acrylamide exposure.

The main studies that I was able to find on this subject appear to be from 2008. The biggest culprit seems to be potatoes, with some varieties of potato creating larger quantities of acrylamide than others. Boiling or microwaving them creates less acrylamide, although there is no specified decrease listed - or even how much is too much.

Unfortunately, the fact that any acrylamide at all has been found in roasted coffee means consumer advocacy groups will jump on it before any hard evidence shows a correlation between the amounts actually found and the amount that actually represents problem.

Given I've personally known many long-term coffee drinkers, at high-consumption levels, who all lived to ripe old ages, I can't imagine that the danger is noteworthy. However, in this day and age of overdone regulation it is unfortunately inevitable that torches will be lit, and big bad businesses will be scorned and threatened with fines that will be imposed if they do not begin to put cancer warnings on coffee products.

The fact that there is no understanding of how much is considered worrisome, or even any defined study of acrylamide consumption by humans and how that consumption of acrylamide affects us (as compared with the rats that the original studies were conducted on) leaves one to wonder what those warning labels would have to say. I can only assume if the push to get this compound listed on labels succeeds, the supposed threat will sound worse than it really is.

How do we list a danger when there is, as yet, no idea of how much danger it represents, or whether it is even significant in humans?

California's Proposition 65, also called the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, was enacted in 1986. It is intended to help Californians make informed decisions about protecting themselves from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.

That's a noble cause, as so many regulations start off being. Unfortunately, alarmists, litigators and general antibusiness types will aggressively use legislation like this to assail even the most innocuous products, since big bad business must be collaboratively pulling the wool over consumer eyes to their own enrichment: right?

I understand the concerns that the law is in place to mitigate but it strikes me that the evidence as it pertains to coffee is a bit thin to justify a push for warning labels.

It would be wise, and to the benefit of all, if consumer advocacy groups and legislators would be willing to work together in scenarios like this to get the necessary information to consumers without mandating a full-blown product re-labeling.

Even for a company the size of Heritage Coffee (my company), the costs of redoing all of our packaging, including the private labels that make up the majority of our products, would run over $1 million.

Enforcement of such a law as Prop 65, if it were to allow packaging to be updated as it is renewed, would at least lessen the impact; but even our printing plates and the molds needed to create our films are valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is likely that we carry far more in the form of packaging than most companies because we are private-label specialists, but our case shows that these initiatives need to be looked at from all sides, and the answers, including exactly to what extent a danger exists, should be fully sussed out before a redo of all packaging is called for.

I am pulling for the National Automatic Merchandising Association and the National Coffee Association of USA in their efforts to represent our industry in this prolonged battle.

As always, may your cup run full, and the brew, exquisite!

» KEVIN DAW is president of Heritage Coffee Co. (London, ON, Canada), a private-label roaster serving the breaktime management industries. A 30-year veteran of OCS, water delivery and vending operations, he has concentrated on coffee roasting for the past two decades.