Did you hear that coffee causes cancer? A judge in California has ruled that coffee companies will now have to label their products with a warning to consumers about the presence of acrylamide, a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent).
Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle ruled that “defendants [coffee companies] failed to satisfy their burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.”
That seems strange since there is significant evidence that coffee actually has a positive effect on our health, but Starbucks and other coffee companies, who were the defendants in the case, apparently failed to show that the acrylamide in coffee would not cause cancer in one or more coffee drinkers out of every 100,000.
Why 100,000? Because a law in California, Proposition 65, says that products must be labeled with a warning if exposure to them would cause more than 1 extra cancer case per every 100,000 people. The law also requires labels on products that may cause birth defects.
One in every 100,000 may seem small, but it’s significant, considering the number of coffee aficionados in the United States. If coffee is harmful, then it should absolutely be labeled accordingly, and coffee companies should be held accountable. But not everyone is convinced.
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Let’s Talk About Acrylamide
Here’s a quick lesson on acrylamide: it’s a chemical used in industrial processes, it’s present in cigarette smoke, and it also forms in some starchy foods during high-temperature cooking. The biggest sources of human exposure are French fries and potato chips, but it’s also found in other grain and potato products as well as our favorite morning companion, coffee.
Acrylamide is definitely present in coffee—it forms when the beans are roasted. What’s unclear is if it’s present at levels we should be concerned about. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, lists the chemical as a probable carcinogen. The National Toxicology Program lists acrylamide as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” So concern about acrylamide in coffee is not unfounded.
But these determinations were made based on studies on lab animals. Drawing hard and fast conclusions from animal studies is problematic because the studies expose mice and rats to levels of acrylamide 1,000 to 10,000 times greater than the levels humans would be exposed to from food and drink. The American Cancer Society says that the studies on acrylamide in humans have been limited, and most have not found exposure to cause an increased risk in humans.
But isn’t coffee good for us?
The coffee company defendants, as you might imagine, argued that drinking coffee was indeed good for people. Somehow that opinion, coming from them, isn’t surprising. But there’s good news, coffee-drinkers: Starbucks isn’t the only one touting the benefits of coffee.
The World Health Organization, as of 2016, decided that “there was inadequate evidence for the carcinogenicity of coffee drinking overall.” Even better, they noted that many studies demonstrated that coffee decreases risk for uterine and liver cancers.
A comprehensive Italian review, published in 2017, reviewed 127 analyses of studies on the effects of coffee on the body. The reviewed studies were evaluated for quality and reliability, and they only considered studies performed on humans. Their conclusion? “Based on these results, there is probable evidence of the beneficial effects of coffee consumption for a number of chronic diseases, including some cancers […], CVD and metabolic-related outcomes (such as type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome), and neurological conditions […]”
The authors noted that adverse effects of coffee were mostly pregnancy-related, and they also found that caffeine was associated with a short-term rise in blood pressure. The health benefits examined were found at about 4 to 5 cups of coffee a day, but even if you’re not guzzling quite that much, the authors note that “coffee can be part of a healthful diet.”
Even the American Cancer Society doesn’t seem too concerned: “Most of the studies [on acrylamide] done so far have not found an increased risk of cancer in humans. For some types of cancer… the results have been mixed, but there are currently no cancer types for which there is clearly an increased risk related to acrylamide intake.”
The Society’s only concern with coffee seems to be the cream and sugar some people load it with.