California lawsuit pushes 13 retailers to put cancer warning on coffee


Coffee is often cited as having multiple health benefits. However, the popular morning drink may soon need to come with a cancer warning in California.

Coffee is by far America’s favorite drink and for seemingly good reasons. It reduces the risk of Type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart attacks, as reported by the 2015 study, “Cafestol, a Bioactive Substance in Coffee, Stimulates Insulin Secretion and Increases Glucose Uptake in Muscle cells: Studies in Vitro,” published in the “Journal of Natural Products.”

Coffee further reduces dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, dementia’s most common form.

A lawsuit first filed in 2010 by the Council for Education and Research on Toxins seeks to require coffee sellers to warn customers about the presence of the chemical acrylamide in their products.

Acrylamide is one of 65 chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other reproductive issues that businesses in California must indicate the presence of, according to the state’s Proposition 65.

Acrylamide forms when sugars and amino acids are cooked above 150 degrees Fahrenheit. It is found in fried foods, such as french fries and potato chips, as well as in baby food and baked goods. The chemical is mainly used in certain industrial processes, such as making paper, dyes and plastics. There are small amounts found in some consumer products, such as caulk, food packaging and several adhesives. It is also found in cigarette smoke.

California added acrylamide to its carcinogen catalogue in January 1990. Fast-food restaurants in California began announcing warnings about acrylamide in 2007. They labeled coffee as a carcinogen, a substance that can cause cancer in living tissue.

Acrylamide has been found to increase the risk of several types of cancer when given to lab animals such as mice and rats in their drinking water, as found in the study “Acrylamide: its metabolism, developmental and reproductive effects, genotoxicity, and carcinogenicity.” However, most of the studies done so far have not found an increased risk of cancer in humans. For some types of cancer, such as kidney, endometrial and ovarian cancer, the results have been mixed. The study “Dietary Acrylamide Intake and the Risk of Renal Cell, Bladder, and Prostate Cancer,” which was published in “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” in 2008, was called insufficient. There are currently no cancer types for which there is clearly an increased human risk related to acrylamide intake.

The studies that have been done so far have had important limitations. For example, many of the studies relied on food questionnaires that people filled out every couple of years. These questionnaires might not have accounted for all dietary sources of acrylamide. In addition, people might not have accurately remembered the foods they consumed when asked in personal interviews or through questionnaires.

While the evidence from human studies so far is somewhat reassuring, a 2014 study titled “Dietary Acrylamide and Human Cancer: A Systematic Review of Literature,” and published in the “Journal of Nutrition and Cancer,” revealed that further research is needed to determine if acrylamide raises cancer risk in people. The American Cancer Society supports the call by federal and international agencies for continued evaluation of how acrylamide is formed, its health risks and how its presence in food can be reduced or removed.

Because of the process by which coffee is made, with the beans being roasted at high temperatures, acrylamide is formed. This means that coffee drinkers are regularly exposed to the chemical.

Raphael Metzger, who represents the nonprofit leading the case, said that his client wants coffee companies to reduce the amount of acrylamide produced in their drinks, to the point where there are no significant cancer risks.

At a bench trial last fall, the coffee companies argued that the level of acrylamide in coffee should be considered safe under the law and that the health benefits of coffee essentially outweigh the risks. At least 13 of the defendants, including 7-Eleven, have settled and agreed to give a warning. Metzger said that private mediation with the remaining retailers is set for Feb. 8.