Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Back-of-the-envelope ~
Can coffee give me cancer?

The jury is still out on whether caffeine is bad for your health. However, caffeine has been proven to block the body's DNA damage repair pathway, which protects us from mutations. This means that a high enough dose of caffeine should theoretically be carcinogenic - a fact that cost/benefit analyses of caffeine such as this article frequently fail to mention. So is the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee enough to block DNA repair? Let's crunch the numbers in our very first back-of-the-envelope calculation:

~1~ The molecular weight of caffeine is 194, or ~200. So a 1 M concentration of caffeine is ~200 g/L.

~2~ Caffeine starts inhibiting DNA repair in cells at ~1 mM concentration in the surrounding fluid (blood, in our case). 1 mM = 1 M/1000 = 200 g/L/1000 = 200 mg/L.

~3~ The average cup of coffee contains 100 mg caffeine. Upon ingestion, this is diluted into your ~5 L of blood. Assuming 100% retention of the compound, caffeine's final concentration in your bloodstream is 100 mg/5 L = 20 mg/L. This is about ten times less than the active concentration of caffeine calculated in step 2.

So according to this back-of-the-envelope calculation, a single cup of coffee is unlikely to generate bloodstream caffeine concentrations that would inhibit DNA repair. Ten cups of coffee, however, might certainly be dangerous, and some energy drinks contain nearly this much. In addition, it is possible that daily consumption of caffeine has a cumulative effect.

Note: I am not a medical doctor, and this is not meant to be medical advice.


Dave L said...

I'm just waiting for the defamation lawsuits from Maxwell House and Folgers to start rolling in.

Samurai Scientist said...

I'm just waiting for the defamation lawsuits from Maxwell House and Folgers to start rolling in.

If I plug their Haggada next month, can I make it all go away?

Seriously, those blokes are probably responsible for the cover up. (Yes, I've become a conspiracy theorist!)

YZF said...

What a wonderful post to read on the one day of the week I drink a Mountain Dew. (Or as it's called nowadays, MTN DEW. Damn those kids and their text messages!)

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