I recently wrote a post whining about the anti-reflux diet that I was debating whether to try in response to some swallowing difficulties I was having. If you recall, the main hurdle I was having trouble getting over was that of coffee. I love coffee. I drink tons of coffee–usually one 16-oz travel mug or oversize ceramic mug of regular in the morning, and half again that much decaf in the evening, sometimes with a latte or another 16-oz cup of regular or decaf in the afternoon. I drink it black.

So naturally, what was probably the most ritualized, pleasurable food item in my life is the absolute #1 prohibition on the anti-reflux diet. According to the sheet I was given, pop might be tolerated if you let it “de-fizz” for a while; alcohol is prohibited but with the wording “especially carbonated beverages such as beer,” leading me to believe that there is a little wiggle room for wine and liquor; and all of the other foods on the list except for chocolate can potentially be added back in after the initial stricter period of the diet, depending on what you personally can tolerate. But coffee is a no-gray-area prohibition. You cannot drink it during the initial period, and, the sheet warns, if you add it back in later, acid damage will recur. I might have been able to hear a recommendation to cut down, but I wasn’t sure I could handle this.

But I decided I would follow the diet fully, or as fully as I could, for a few weeks, and see if it made any further difference to my swallowing; the problem, which used to occur at almost every meal, had almost gone away anyway, but I had noticed it maybe twice over the two weeks leading up to my follow-up appointment with the GE, so I figured maybe I could get it to go away completely if I followed the diet and took my Prilosec for awhile. (To be totally honest, having never suffered reflux before, I was and still am secretly assuming that the reflux is a one-off peculiarity resulting from the fairly drastic changes I made when starting my weight-loss diet, and that after cutting some stuff out long enough to fix the current acid damage, I could probably go back to my usual habits.) So I went around buying various anti-reflux-diet-friendly snacks, and although I learned to my irritation that Kraft had picked now to discontinue Postum (which I had never tasted but had certainly heard of, seeing as I grew up very near the Cereal City), I found a similar coffee substitute called Kaffree Roma from Kellogg/Morningstar Farms.

Turns out, I actually really like Roma. It tastes enough like instant coffee that I can tolerate it as a substitute, but has its own smooth, pleasant flavor. I’d still rather be drinking Peet’s with my husband, but I can deal. I even enjoy the fact that I have more or less cut out caffeine for the past several days (OK, so there was a little laxity this weekend as I “celebrated” my 10K success), and I think I feel a little better for it after an initial period of exhaustion and grouchiness, although I still think there is no inherent reason to moralize quitting caffeine. Mind you, I am not really a person who does things in moderation–I used to drink 3 or so cans of diet pop a day before I managed to cut that out–and the fact that Roma is instant makes it even easier to make than coffee, so I had been drinking up to 3 or 4 oversize mugs of it per day. But considering I wouldn’t really have batted an eye at drinking that much coffee, I wasn’t too worried about it other than the cost. In other words, I had found a solution I thought I could live with.

So of course I almost immediately discovered that Postum (and, one would assume, every other coffee substitute including Roma, since they all also have a roasted grain base) contains almost freakishly high levels of a chemical called acrylamide (I like to use Chemfinder for work, but they won’t let you link to a completed search, and Wikipedia’s information actually seems more complete anyway, so phhbbbt in Chemfinder’s general direction), which arises naturally during the Maillard Reaction that occurs as foods brown during cooking. The FDA report I found puts Postum at an average of 4,573 ppb acrylamide by weight (which is therefore equivalent to μg/kg). From this, assuming Roma has the same levels, I calculated that at my current rate of intake, I am consuming almost 110 μg of acrylamide per day (1.4 μg/kg body weight). The same report puts brewed Starbucks Colombian at 7 ppb, which would mean that if I switched back to coffee, I would be reducing my intake to about 6 μg per day.

Now, I am not really a person who puts much stock in the health scare du jour. For one thing, I can’t stand the tone of health-related “news” articles, all of which somehow manage to work obesity into the topic whether it should be there or not, so I usually just avoid them altogether and let NPR decide whether something is important enough to tell me about. But this is not just a little acrylamide. (If I were concerned about acrylamide period, I would be freaking out about all the coffee I’ve ingested over my lifetime also). This is a LOT. Even if I cut back to one mug per day, below which point I feel like I might just as well cut it out altogether and reduce the joy in my life by at least 25% (only partially kidding, and yes, I do realize I have an unhealthy attachment to steaming hot beverages in the morning, but let’s leave that aside for the moment), I’d still be consuming 27 μg. I think perhaps this is enough to be of concern, and that I should stop drinking the Roma. Other foods analyzed by the FDA and in studies may have higher concentrations of acrylamide per portion–I think French fries are a big culprit, for example–but none of them are something that I would consume every day without fail like the Roma is.

To look at it another way, even though I don’t agree with the sentiment because I know that certain substances are highly toxic or damaging at very low levels, I can understand the sometimes dismissive tone people take about regulation of very small quantities of environmental chemicals, as in drinking water standards. After all, it’s one part per BILLION (or even trillion as analytical methods improve), or 0.001 to 1 micrograms per kilogram or liter–how can a concentration that low of anything be dangerous? But even if I subscribed to this belief, I think 110 μg of acrylamide per day would give me pause. That’s 0.1 mg, an amount I could probably measure on some laboratory balances and that would be visible to the naked eye, though I think it would likely be just a small speck if I’m thinking about it right. I picture ordering a bottle of acrylamide from Fisher, pulling the bottle off the lab shelf, reviewing the MSDS with all the accompanying scary information, measuring out 0.1 mg of it, and EATING IT, then repeating this each day, and I feel a little uneasy. Don’t get me wrong–I know that almost everything is considered a potential carcinogen or at least potentially dangerous in large enough quantities. I remember catching sight of the label on a bottle of regular sodium chloride (i.e. table salt, except it was laboratory instead of food grade) in our lab, and as I recall, it instructed you to wear goggles and gloves when handling it. So a lot of chemical safety information is overly alarmist for CYA reasons. But this still worries me.

However, mainly, right now I am pissed off and ranting because every time I think I’ve found something that tastes good with no strings attached, information seems to arise indicating that it can kill me. Regular pop gives you THE OBESITY with THE HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP and causes tooth decay; diet pop contains scary, evil aspartame (and as a child of the ’70s and ’80s, I don’t like the taste of acesulfame potassium or sucralose, which in any case I have no reason to believe are any better for you); flavored sparkling water (which I was starting to really enjoy) is acidic and a no-no on the anti-reflux diet; bottled water is bad for the environment and is too expensive; tap water drunk from my Nalgene bottle will expose me to THE BIS-PHENOL-A; coffee will destroy my esophagus; Postum will give me cancer; and Genmaicha (the only tea that I actually like) is also made of roasted grain and is therefore likely not much better acrylamide-wise than coffee substitutes. It seems that I have no recourse other than to start living some kind of CSPI/sad WW/raw diet existence where you shiver while eating organic baby carrots dipped in hummus for lunch (except I’m not actually supposed to eat hummus right now because it contains spices) and never drink anything other than plain cold water.

So now what do I do? Buy the somewhat-intriguing-looking Toddy cold-brewing system? Try “low-acid” coffee? Bite the bullet and give up coffee and its delicious hot ersatz cousins altogether (waaahhhh)? Or just quit panicking and buying or not buying shit in response to health scares? Do any of you science-y types have an opinion? Sandy has a post on this topic, but it doesn’t reassure me too much because my intake of acrylamide if I keep drinking Roma every day will be higher than any of the categories in the studies she analyzes (the rat toxicology seems to indicate little cancer risk at any kind of reasonable intake, but in general I dislike toxicology and don’t pay much attention to results stemming from it, so). Which in itself is sort of scary. But for the most part, I just want to be able to… eat stuff… without being worried that I’ll get cancer 20 years from now and have only myself to blame. At the same time, I don’t want to dismiss genuinely worrisome findings just because I find them inconvenient.

I have very little time for the general idea that seems to be arising that if you do everything “right,” you’ll live forever–and that conversely, if you don’t live forever, it’s your own fault–but it seems that applying the same logic to myself is more challenging. This is a concern that I have seen raised in FA before (e.g. it’s all very well for me to say as a young person who does not have diabetes that I don’t believe obesity causes diabetes, and that therefore I would refuse to go on a weight-loss diet if I became diabetic, but what would I actually do or say if I was standing in my doctor’s office at 50 with diabetes and it was no longer theoretical?), and these days at least I can easily see how these questions become much more murky when you’re talking about your own life.

Thanks, as usual, for listening to me rant.