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California, Coffee, and Cancer

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California, Coffee, and Cancer

About a month ago, coffee drinkers fretted over headlines about a California judge’s ruling that coffee shops must post warnings disclosing the beverage’s cancer risk. However, many experts have weighed in on this ruling, saying that it is incredibly misleading to consumers.

Of course, we take health guidelines seriously, and want our consumers to be informed if a product is risky. So, let us examine this ruling more closely.

According to this article from the New York Times, a Long Beach-based nonprofit called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics filed a lawsuit in 2010, claiming that companies must warn consumers about the presence of a chemical called "acrylamide" in coffee. The case grew to include defendants such as Starbucks, Peets, and many smaller coffee chains. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle ruled that businesses that sold coffee without warning consumers of the cancer risk were in violation of Proposition 65, a law that requires businesses larger than nine total employees to disclose any carcinogens or toxins in their products. Coffee shops in California must now post these misleading warnings, or pay hefty fines.

Acrylamide is a chemical that forms when some foods are prepared in specific ways, including frying and roasting, at a high temperature. The chemical is found in foods such as French fries, potato chips, and yes, coffee. But is it as dangerous as the lawsuit might lead consumers to believe?

The American Cancer Society states that it is not yet clear if acrylamide actually affects cancer risk in humans. There have been studies in which lab animals were given huge doses of acrylamide, and these studies did show a link between that dosage of acrylamide and cancer development in the lab animals. However, there have been no reliable studies on the chemical’s effects in humans, and the amount that the animals were given was thousands of times more than humans would ever encounter in foods, including coffee. According to Accountable Science, brewed coffee only contains 3 to 13 parts per billion of acrylamide. This is an infinitesimal amount, and would not increase one’s risk of cancer whether one had one or five cups of coffee per day.

Acrylamide is still only listed as a “probable human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. But whether or not acrylamide is truly a carcinogen to humans, it does not mean that the tiny amount found in coffee would ever cause an increase in cancer risk. In fact, coffee has recently been linked to a decreased risk of certain cancers, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

It is true that coffee does contain an incredibly small amount of acrylamide, so if this chemical is a concern to you, then you should take whatever precautions that you feel are necessary. However, most health and coffee authorities would say that for businesses to post warnings that coffee is a carcinogen is a misinterpretation of data that could be incredibly misleading to consumers. Acrylamide is not yet listed as a known carcinogen to humans, and its presence of coffee has not been scientifically linked to an increased cancer risk. As always, make sure to do your own research and make the choices that are right for you!

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