A California judge ruled that coffee shops must post a warning that the beverage carries a cancer risk, but is that really the case?

By Julie Mazziotta
March 30, 2018 02:34 PM

Coffee lovers in California will soon get a dose of concern every time they get their fix: A judge ruled that coffee shops in the state must post a warning sign that the beverage poses an increased risk of cancer.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle came down in favor of a non-profit group, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, who argued for the warning because of a chemical produced in the coffee roasting process called acrylamide. The non-profit sued the coffee industry over claims that the levels of acrylamide in coffee posed a significant risk, and Berle decided that the defendants, made up of companies like Starbucks and Peet’s, did not provide a sufficient rebuttal.

“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, according to the Washington Post. “Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.”

The judge’s ruling is still pending, but it will likely proceed, with the final step in the eight-year-long lawsuit being a decision on what the coffee companies will be liable for. The Council for Education and Research on Toxics has asked for fines up to $2,500 for every person exposed to acrylamide since 2002.

However, cancer researchers say that acrylamide, which primarily appears in plant foods that are cooked at high temperatures like potatoes, bread, French fries and more, poses little to no risk to humans.

“There’s some acrylamide in coffee, but we’re talking about very, very low levels. Trace amounts,” Dr. Geoffrey Kabat, a cancer epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and author of Getting Risk Right, tells PEOPLE. “Acrylamide is measured in foods in units of parts per billion, and to give an idea of one part per billion means, is it would be one drop of ink in the largest tanker trucks used to haul gasoline. It’s a decimal with nine zeros after it. In 2004, the FDA did surveys and the amount of acrylamide in common coffees ranged from undetectable to 609 parts per billion, so it’s considered very low.”

In 2016, the World Health Organization removed coffee from their list of “possible carcinogens,” and the American Cancer Society says that “there are currently no cancer types for which there is clearly an increased risk related to acrylamide intake.” They do, however, acknowledge the need for further research into the subject.

Dr. Kabat adds, though, that there have been hundreds of studies in the last 20 years that show the health benefits of coffee.

“We have massive amounts of information about the effects in humans of drinking coffee, and the studies of hundreds of thousands of people with various cancers and diseases, and what they’re all finding is that either there’s no association of coffee with cancer, or coffee appears to be protective. And that’s true of cancers like liver and endometrial and menopausal breast cancer, and that’s also true for non-cancer diseases. It looks like in the balance, that coffee can be very good for you,” he says.

Dr. Kabat believes that the Council for Education and Research on Toxics is “doing an enormous disservice to people” by scaring them away from drinking coffee.

“This benefits no one,” he says. “These decisions evoke science, but we’ve seen from studies that there’s no signal that coffee is harmful. This decision scares people, it keeps people focused on the wrong things and it provides no useful guidance for what people should do.”