The Good, Bad and the Ugly About Furan in Coffee

On April 13, a University of Barcelona researcher announced that the presence of a chemical called furan in coffee varies in amount depending on the mode of brewing. He stated that capsule preparations had the highest level of the chemical and drip machines contained the least. Furan is an ugly compound that arises in foods that are submitted to heat processes. It’s ugly because it has toxic and carcinogenic effects on animals. Also, a cancer research agency lists it as a “possible” carcinogen in humans. So the news is making the rounds of different media outlets quite quickly. Acrylamide is another such compound you may have read about that pops up in foods like potato chips, baked potatoes, breads and other carbo foods that are cooked at high heat. And this is the bad news, that the necessary processing at high temps causes undesirable effects on our favorite foods. The researcher, Javier Santos, also found that the levels of the furan are lower in instant and decaf than in espresso. The reason for the higher levels in the capsule preparations is that the capsules are sealed; during the extracting process they don’t allow exposure to air. Therefore, the furan cannot escape when created by the hot water passing through the beans. In the drip process, the pot is open to the air so the furan can escape, leading to the lower levels. This is good news for drip coffee lovers. There is other good news for all coffee drinkers. Even though the furan levels are highest in capsule brewing, the resulting levels (117‐244 nanograms/millileter from one brand tested), are well within the levels considered to be safe for humans. To reach unsafe levels, the consumer would have to drink 200 instant coffees, 30 espressos, or 20 cups of capsule coffee per day of the highest furan-content brands. If a person is drinking 20 to 200 cups of coffee per day, they will have problems of other kinds in health for sure. So don’t throw out your capsule machines quite yet. It’s a good bet that the machine and capsule manufacturers will devise a way to let steam out during extraction in such a way as to vent the furan and bring the levels down. The important thing is that coffee drinking, like everything else, be done within moderate levels. If you’re drinking ten cups a day, you might consider taking it down a notch. You’re probably not throwing away your potato chips and potatoes either. Both potatoes and coffee have many desirable and health-enhancing nutrients besides the ugly compounds. Life is a balancing act, as is food and beverage consumption. Enjoy your coffee and accompaniments, but keep all in balance. Until new research shows more problems with the bad and the ugly, keep in mind the good and brew on. And don’t let the headlines scare you.

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