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What You Need to Know About Coffee, Cancer, and California
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What You Need to Know About Coffee, Cancer, and California

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A California Ruling May Be Setting the Stage for Cancer Warnings on Coffee

As recently reported on CNN and elsewhere, on March 28th, a California Superior Court judge ruled for the Council for Education and Research on Toxics and against Starbucks in a lawsuit regarding acrylamide and coffee. This ruling has sparked widespread concern about the potential for your morning cup of coffee in California to contain this known carcinogen, a byproduct of the coffee-roasting process.

While the ruling may pave the way for a required warning on coffee in the state of California, the science seems to be far from clear, regarding coffee and cancer. Acrylamide is present in coffee, thanks to the roasting process, but it’s also present in a great many other foods and far, far more prevalent in cigarette smoke, for example. Here’s what you need to know with regard to coffee and cancer.

The 2018 California Coffee Case and the Ruling

Contrary to what has been reported by several news sources on the Internet and elsewhere, this ruling does not “require” a warning and it does not state that, “coffee causes cancer.” Neither did the ruling solely affect Starbucks. Ninety-one additional defendants were named in the case and ruling, and the defendants that argued the defense on behalf of all ninety-one were Starbucks, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the J.M. Smucker Company, and Kraft Foods.

According to the court documents, the defendants did “not dispute that roasting coffee causes the release of the chemical acrylamide, and that brewed coffee contains acrylamide.” The defendants also did “not dispute that they failed to provide warnings to consumers that the ready-to-drink coffee they sold contained high levels of acrylamide.”

Instead, the defendants argued that issuing a warning was a violation of their free speech rights, that federal law preempted California law on the matter, and that exposure to the amount of acrylamide present in coffee would not pose a significant risk, even over a lifetime of drinking coffee. The judge, however, rejected these claims; this judgment could, barring appeals, require warning labels on coffee and coffee products at some point in the future.

Acrylamide and Coffee

When foods (including coffee) are cooked using a variety of techniques, they undergo a reaction that involves their sugars and amino acids. This is called the Maillard reaction, and it’s the process that gives most roasted, fried, or grilled foods a distinctive, some would say delicious, flavor.

Unfortunately, the Maillard reaction also produces acrylamide during the process. In the case of coffee, the acrylamide present from roasting green coffee beans dissolves in the water used in the brewing process, and ends up making it into the final beverage.

Putting Coffee, Cancer, and the California Ruling in Perspective

According to the National Institutes of Health, studies in rodents have confirmed that exposure to acrylamide can increase the risk of many kinds of cancer. But they also state that a “large number of epidemiologic studies in humans have found no consistent evidence that dietary acrylamide exposure is associated with the risk of any type of cancer.”

Acrylamide is present in several foods that you may enjoy on a daily basis, including olives, breakfast cereal, roasted meat, roasted vegetables, barbecue, and coffee. Many of these foods also have great health benefits associated with them— especially coffee. As with all foods that have both positive and negative health associations, moderation is most likely the key. You’ll have to decide for yourself, until the next court ruling.

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