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Coffee Compound May Have Breast and Colon Cancer Link


A compound in coffee called trigonelline (or “trig”) may have a role in estrogen-dependent breast cancer but also be helpful against the development of colon cancer. The bottom line at this point, according to Texas AgriLife Research investigators, is that trigonelline can act like a hormone.

During the last century, more than 19,000 studies have been conducted on the health pros and cons of coffee. In a 2006 study conducted at Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Coffee Studies, Tomas DePaulis, PhD, a research scientist, noted that one reason “coffee is far more healthful than it is harmful” is the presence of the antioxidant trigonelline, which also gives coffee its bitter taste and aroma.

According to one of the Texas AgriLife Research authors, nutrition scientist Dr. Clinton Allred, trigonelline is a natural compound that is used in traditional Indian culture for post-menopausal women. Its chemical structure is not similar to estradiol (a type of estrogen), so Allred did not believe the coffee compound would demonstrate estrogenic effects. But it did.

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Just because trigonelline has a link to cancer “in the sense that we are looking at estrogen-dependent cancer cells,” noted Dr. Allred in the news release from Texas A&M University, “that doesn’t suggest that it would actually cause the disease.” He does not believe consumers should be worried about drinking coffee. “It is way too early to say that drinking a cup of coffee is exposing you to something that is definitely going to be estrogenic.”

Dr. Allred also noted that the amount of trigonelline in coffee varies depending on the variety of coffee bean. The two main types of coffee beans used in the United States both contain the antioxidant. The most coffee beans are roasted, the less trigonelline remains in the bean.

The other side of the coffee compound is its possible use against colon cancer. The study’s authors are interested in exploring whether this phytoestrogen can prevent the formation of colon cancer. If it does, it may be possible to develop a drug that could target colon cancer cells only and so spare the rest of the body from any estrogenic effects. Dr. Allred noted that “It’s really important for us to come up with strategies that we can have the benefits in the colon without the risks associated with (estrogenic compounds).”

Tomas DePaulis, PhD, Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Coffee Studies
Texas A&M University news release, Nov. 12, 2009