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    What The California Coffee Ruling Means For Your Morning Java

    by Colleen Stinchcombe - April 30 , 2018

    Photo Credit: by Uncle Joe Coffee & Tea Co
    Photo Credit: by Uncle Joe Coffee & Tea Co,

    If the best part of waking up has always been your coffee, you might be feeling a little nervous now. First it was the ever-rising prices at your local coffee shop, then it was the looming coffee plant fungus that’s threatening to rob the world of java, and now headlines have been making the rounds about a California ruling that intends to label a cuppa as carcinogenic.

    Still, before you panic about your caffeine fix, it’s important to know the background of the California coffee ruling so you can make up your own mind about the potential risk.

    Here’s the story: In late March, a superior court judge in Los Angeles, California ruled that companies may need to start labelling coffee products with a cancer warning. The ruling came after a lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit Council for Education and Research on Toxics in 2010, which asked for damages and future warning labels on coffee from several companies like Starbucks, Gloria Jean’s Gourmet Coffees and 7-11.

    The reason the ruling is coming up in California and not elsewhere is because of California’s Proposition 65, or the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. Thanks to that law, California keeps a running list of chemicals that it believes may be possibly carcinogenic. The law also requires businesses to label their products when they include any of the chemicals listed, whether they happen naturally or are added during the process — or to prove to the court why the chemical isn’t a significant risk in their products.

    So what exactly is in coffee that is causing so much concern, and should the rest of us non-Californians be nervous?

    The chemical in coffee that California is focused on is acrylamide, which is naturally found in many foods that are cooked, such as french fries, potato chips, breads and coffee. The amount of acrylamide in foods seems to have to do with the way the food is cooked — frying, roasting, baking and broiling are more likely to create higher amounts of acrylamide, while microwaving, steaming and boiling are less so. That’s because cooking creates a chemical reaction in food, where certain sugars and amino acids create acrylamide at high temperatures.

    Another way of saying this: Coffee and acrylamide come hand in hand. It’s not a chemical that’s added, it’s a chemical that occurs on it’s own through the roasting process of coffee beans.

    There seems to be mixed messages about how concerned humans ought to be about acrylamide, and at what concentration. The American Cancer Society, for example, says that it’s not clear yet from studies whether acrylamide increases cancer risk in people, though it has increased risk in rats — but only at levels that are at least 1,000 times more than people would be consuming in food.

    Other government agencies like the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), has said that acrylamide is a “probable human carcinogen.” But the WHO released a statement in 2016 agreeing with the American Cancer Society that they “found no conclusive evidence for a carcinogenic effect of drinking coffee.”

    Still, there’s enough concern about acrylamide that the Environmental Protection Agency began regulating its presence in drinking water in 1974 with the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

    So, coffee is OK, even if acrylamide is bad? It’s hard to tell. Even with the presence of acrylamide, coffee has been subject to plenty of other research studies, and often the research tells a very compelling story about the effect coffee has on humans.

    For example, there are more than a few studies that talk about the positive impact coffee has on human health. To start with, coffee contains several necessary nutrients like riboflavin, potassium, manganese and magnesium, not to mention plenty of the often buzzed-about antioxidants. Then there’s the research that suggests coffee drinkers have up to 65 percent less risk of Alzheimer’s disease, not to mention the the studies that say, broadly, that people who drink coffee just plain old seem to live longer. And perhaps the most befuddling data is that coffee has been linked to decreasing cancer risk for liver cancer, prostate cancer and oral cancers.

    While the California ruling is seemingly an attempt to help protect people from future medical issues, medical doctors have expressed concern that labelling products like coffee as cancer-causing could reduce the public’s trust in such labels. “Everything causes cancer,” people already say, as if trying to reduce our risk was a fool’s errand. But that’s a mistake. In a blog for the American Institute of Cancer Research, Dr. Edward Giovannucci wrote, “On a ‘cancer worry’ scale from 0 to 10, coffee should be solidly at 0 and smoking at 10; they should not have similar warning labels.”

    Or, as Dr. Robert Weinburg told the LA Times a little more frankly, “Coffee is connected to cancer development by the fact that coffee is sometimes drunk by living people and only living people develop cancer.”

    The warning labels in California aren’t a done deal yet. The ruling that’s been making the news was just a tentative judgement, and now coffee companies have a chance to push back and make their own argument against the ruling. And pushing back they are. Keurig, Folgers, Starbucks and several other businesses have appealed the ruling and are anticipating a long, hard fight.

    Reduce your risk

    Regardless of whether California moves forward with labels, the largest risk factors for cancer remain the same. They include, according to the World Health Organization:

    • Tobacco use

    • Drinking alcohol

    • Lack of physical activity

    • Low intake of fruits and vegetables

    • Certain infections like HPV

    • Ionizing and ultraviolet radiation

    • Urban air pollution

    These are likely a more impactful place to start when it comes to lowering cancer risk.

    When it comes to your coffee choices, all coffee contains acrylamide by virtue of the roasting process. However, dark-roasted coffee seems to contain less of the chemical, and might be a place to start if you don’t want to consider reducing your coffee intake overall.

    More importantly, if you’re concerned about your cancer risk, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can get an understanding of your family cancer history and give you personalized risk management tips.


    Colleen Stinchcombe is a writer living in Phoenix, AZ. She writes for publishers, brands and individuals. Her work can be found on, Green Living AZ, the Brandless blog, Canadian Pharmacy Blog and elsewhere.


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