Scientists have not yet reached a verdict on whether coffee is carcinogenic or a healthful beverage, but a Los Angeles Superior Court judge has rendered a verdict in a tentative ruling that would require coffee sellers to post cancer warnings to California consumers in coffee houses and retail stores such as supermarkets.
The verdict is fitting for an April Fools’ Day announcement, but millions of coffee drinkers may consider it a very bad joke.
In the short time since the tentative ruling was announced the reaction to it has been one of shock, disbelief and outrage.
The reason behind the mandatory warnings is the presence of an obscure industrial chemical known as acrylamide that was added to California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer in 1990.
The original reason for the listing of acrylamide was its use as an industrial chemical used in grouting materials and other industrial applications. Nobody suspected the chemical would be present in food.
But, in 2002 scientists in Sweden discovered that acrylamide also forms during the and roasting of certain starchy foods by a chemical reaction that takes place in cooking, baking and roasting. This chemical reaction, known as the Maillard reaction takes place when coffee beans are roasted.
There has been scant information published about whether acrylamide from the coffee roasting process remains present in coffee after it is brewed, and if so, at what levels. This dearth of information has only heightened the controversy about coffee after eight years of litigation.
The controversy will most likely be decided by a California appellate court in the next few years.
While the National Coffee Association, an industry trade association contends that the amount of acrylamide in a cup of java is insignificant, the plaintiff, the non-profit Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) argues the opposite is true.
The Council for Education and Research on Toxics seeks to compel the industry to prevent the formation acrylamide from its processing — like potato chip makers did when the organization sued them a decade ago.
The coffee Roasting industry, led by Starbucks Corp., said the level of the chemical in coffee isn’t harmful and any risks are outweighed by health benefits.
However, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said in his tentative ruling that the industry’s attorneys hadn’t presented sufficient evidence at trial to prevail.
“While plaintiff offered evidence that consumption of coffee increases the risk of harm to the fetus, to infants, to children and to adults, defendants’ medical and epidemiology experts testified that they had no opinion on causation,” Berle wrote in his proposed ruling. “Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.”
CERT brought the suit against Starbucks and approximately 90 roasting companies under California’s Proposition 65, a right-to know initiative passed by California voters in 1986 that has been applauded for causing a significant number of manufacturers to remove carcinogenic chemicals and reproductive toxicants from their products and roundly criticized for its citizen enforcement provision. Proposition 65, requires warning labels for approximately 900 chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects. It allows private citizens, advocacy groups and attorneys to sue on behalf of the state and collect a portion of civil penalties for failure to provide warnings.
Scientific evidence on the health benefits and/or dangers of drinking coffee have gone back and forth for a long time, but recent studies have found a surprising number of health benefits conferred by a cup of Joe.
In 2016, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization removed coffee from its “possible carcinogen” list. This is significant because the agency rarely downgrades its carcinogen classifications.
Recent studies indicate coffee is unlikely to cause breast, prostate or pancreatic cancer, and it seems to lower the risks for liver and uterine cancers, the agency said.
IARC notes that the evidence is inadequate to determine its effect on several other types of cancers.
The roasting companies maintain that it’s not feasible to remove acrylamide from coffee without ruining the flavor.
But attorney Raphael Metzger, who prevailed in the lawsuit and drinks a few cups of java a day, argues the industry could remove the acrylamide in coffee without ruining the taste.
What is most curious about this case is that in most cases involving potentially toxic chemicals epidemiological evidence is sparse, because studies are conducted exclusively on laboratory animals. However, this does not hold true for coffee because millions upon millions of coffee drinkers imbibe in their favorite brew of choice every day with great regularity. This massive amount of consumption data should be able to provide answers about whether the acrylamide present in your brew of choice poses a risk of cancer to humans. “I firmly believe if the potato chip industry can do it, so can the coffee industry,” Metzger said. “A warning won’t be that effective because it’s an addictive product.”
For instance, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has designated coffee as one of the major food sources of acrylamide, along with potato chips, crackers, bread, cookies, breakfast cereals, canned black olives and prune juice.
Surprisingly there are no regulations in place for levels of acrylamide in food, despite the fact that it is regulated in drinking water and certain food contact materials.
The NCI reports that a “large number” of studies in humans have found “no consistent evidence that dietary acrylamide exposure is associated with the risk of any type of cancer.”
“IARC had determined that acrylamide is a probable human carcinogen,” yet the agency downgraded the cancer risk of coffee in 2016.
The Roasting industry has a few weeks to challenge the ruling before it is final and will probably seek relief from an appellate court.
If Judge Berle’s ruling stands, it may come with a hefty penalty because potential civil penalties of up to $2,500 per each person over eight years could potentially add up to a staggering sum.
Meanwhile, most California coffee drinkers will continue imbibing in their brew of choice and ignore the warnings, including this author.