Like salad cream, orange squash and spam, instant coffee begs the question: why? Once you have tasted the real thing, surely the only conclusion you could come to is that life is too precious to settle for such inferior approximations. Taste a proper coffee, made from freshly ground beans and you can never again drink another cup of instant without a sense of despair creeping over you. The truth is, it is horrible. You can actually taste the void created when the flavour was removed and replaced with a bitter, burnt nothingness. Worse still is decaffeinated instant, developed for people who have lost all direction in life.
Even if you are not convinced by my impartial argument, there’s no getting away from one rather unsavoury fact. Instant coffee is high in a chemical which is classified as a Category 2 Carcinogen by the European Union. Category 2 carcinogens are ‘substances which should be regarded as if they are carcinogenic to humans’.
That chemical is acrylamide. Acrylamides are toxic chemicals produced when carbohydrates are cooked to a crisp – burnt toast, for example has high levels. Potatoes, in particular crisps and chips, are especially vulnerable to acrylamide formation. So too instant coffee granules.
Acrylamide is also an industrial creation, used for various purposes such as construction grouting. It is one of the chemicals that make up cigarette smoke and was first discovered in food by Swedish researchers in 2002. In animal models it has been shown to induce tumours. In particular, thyroid, testicular and adrenal cancer in rats, and skin tumours in mice. Decreased fertility has been observed in both male and female rats. In humans it is much harder to establish a direct link with cancer (you can’t just stuff some hapless volunteer full of acrylamide and watch what happens) but it is known to cause nerve damage (peripheral neuropathy) to humans exposed in the workplace. Because the cancer risk to humans remains unclear, EU countries including the UK now regularly monitor acrylamide levels in commonly consumed foods and food manufacturers have said they are looking to reduce levels in their products, on that famously reliable voluntary basis.
The problem with instant coffee is that it is exceptionally high in acrylamides, compared to other forms of coffee, such as freshly brewed. Ironically, quality coffee has a split personality, having been shown to both favour and diminish good health. According to the evidence, moderate caffeine intake – up to 400mg a day – does not appear to have any detrimental effects on health. Cross that line (which equates roughly to four cups a day) and effects such as increased blood pressure arise.
So there you have it: moderate intake of proper coffee will have no effect other than restore your faith in quality food and drink in the UK.
Andrzejewski, D., Roach, J.A.G., Gay, M.L., & Musser, S.M. Analysis of coffee for the presence of acrylaminde by LC-MS/MS (2004) Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2004, 52 (7):1996–2002
Dybing, E. & Sanner, T. (2003) Risk assessment of acrylamide in foods. Toxicological Sciences, 75(1):7-15.
Higdon, J.V. & Frei, B. (2006) Coffee and health: A review of recent human research. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 46:101-123.
Nawrot, P., Jordan, S., Eastwood, J. et al (2003) Effects of caffeine on human health. Food Additives and Contaminants, 20 (1):1–30.
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