Chennai & coffee are inseparable

Deccan Chronicle.  | Deccan Chronicle

Lifestyle, Health and Wellbeing

Evan as California calls for cancer warnings on the cuppa.

Representational image

A judge has ruled that California law requires coffee companies to carry an ominous cancer warning label because of a chemical produced in the roasting process.  Sellers must soon post scary warnings about cancer risks. But how frightened should we be of our daily cup of joe? Not very, as some scientists and available evidence seem to suggest. Public health experts disagree that coffee poses a cancer risk, saying, “If anything, coffee is protective for some types of cancer.”

How do they view all this in Chennai, which could be called the cradle of coffee in Tamil Nadu, after Kumbakonam, the town that believes its ‘Degree Kaapi’ is the best brew going in the world. For the dedicated coffee drinker, frothy coffee from a steaming cup is the hallmark of a great South Indian tradition. It is the energy drink to kickstart the day.  It is the quintessential office drink for that burst of inspiration and flow of energy. It is also the de-stress drink. Any compulsory health warning like in California would have the least impact here, say coffee lovers. 

Coffee consumption continues to increase in the southern states, particularly Tamil Nadu and in the country coffee drinking has grown to about 90 grams per capita per year from 60-70 grams about 12 years ago. We also know that 3.13 lakh metric tons of coffee are produced in south India, with Karnataka contributing the bulk (2.11 lakh MT) but about 70 per cent of the domestic production is exported to about 45 countries, mainly Europe which takes about half of everything India exports. They don’t what they are missing as Indian beans go abroad, much of it to Italy which ironically markets it back in India through fancy coffee chains.  

The Chennaiite will, however, swear by the tumbler-davara combination in which boiled milk meets the decoction filtered down from a combination of Peaberry and Plantation coffee beans with a degree of chicory blended into it according to taste. The inveterate coffee drinker may not be too bothered about scientists now saying that the chemical called acrylamide is made when the beans are roasted. US government agencies call acrylamide a probable or likely carcinogen, based on animal research, and a group sued successfully to require coffee sellers to warn of that under a California law passed by voters in 1986.

Chennai’s coffee drinking may have changed over the years from the traditional tumbler-davara thanks to the proliferation of coffee chains like Cafe Coffee Day, Barista Lavazza, Costa Coffee and, of course, Starbucks. This is a great blend for Chennai as the fun factor came into coffee drinking with these modern cafes.  It has also become fashionable to be seen sipping a cuppa in these outlets.
“At the minimum, coffee is neutral. If anything, there is fairly good evidence of the benefit of coffee on cancer,” says Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health to AP while the WHO cancer agency moved coffee off the “possible carcinogen” list two years ago, though it says evidence is insufficient to rule out any possible role.

Scientists are saying now that exposure probably is not that high in a cup of coffee a day but if a lot of cups of coffee are drunk, then consumers may have to consider cutting down. Smoking causes the generation of most acrylamide, while in the diet, French fries, potato chips, crackers, cookies, cereal and other high-carbohydrate foods  contain the chemical as a byproduct of roasting, baking, toasting or frying. 

On the flip side, it is known that rodents and people absorb the chemical at different rates and metabolise it differently and no one knows yet its relevance to human health.  Research also says that coffee is unlikely to cause breast, prostate or pancreatic cancer, and that it seemed to lower the risks for liver and uterine cancers. It is also known that the California law has potential to do more harm than good to public health by causing needless confusion. So, go on, brew that cuppa from decoction and milk and keep going. 

After all, the American Cancer Society’s chief medical officer says.  “The issue here is dose, and the amount of acrylamide that would be included in coffee, which is really very small, compared to the amount from smoking tobacco. I don’t think we should be worried about a cup of coffee.” Cheers to the next cuppa then.