Coffee is not known by medical science to cause cancer, nor it is considered a probable carcinogen by any accredited health organization. Nonetheless, California’s coffee shops will soon be required to display a cancer warning sign due to a recent state court ruling. Regardless of what the notices in California may say, coffee drinkers don’t need to worry because coffee does not cause cancer.
This month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle affirmed his recent ruling that a group representing California’s coffee industry failed to prove that coffee’s health benefits outweighed possible risks of consumer exposure to a chemical named acrylamide. Acrylamide is a suspected human carcinogen found in trace amounts in brewed coffee. This final decision in an eight-year courtroom drama will require coffee shops in California to post cancer warning signs or place labels on coffee cups to warn consumers about exposure to the chemical, in compliance with the state’s Proposition 65 law.
The Los Angeles court concluded that if acrylamide causes cancer, and there is acrylamide in coffee, then coffee causes cancer too. Unfortunately, such an argument can be true only if its underlying premises are correct. That’s not the case here.
What is Acrylamide?
Acrylamide is a chemical that forms naturally in coffee as a byproduct of the Maillard Browning Reaction that occurs when heat is applied to raw green coffee beans during roasting. This is the same process by which most foods, such as bread, cereals, and potatoes turn brown when toasted, roasted, baked, or fried. Many cooked foods and some dark foods that are not cooked, like canned olives and prune juice, also contain acrylamide. In fact, those foods generally contain more acrylamide than coffee. For purposes of illustration, one would need to consume 42 cups of coffee to ingest the equivalent amount of acrylamide found in one order of fast food French fries.
There is no scientific proof that acrylamide is carcinogenic to humans. California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, better known as Proposition 65, requires that businesses notify residents about exposure to chemicals identified by the state as dangerous that are found in the products they purchase, in their homes or workplaces, or as they are released in the environment. Acrylamide was added to the California Office of Environment Health Hazard Assessment’s “List of Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer or Reproductive Toxicity” in 1990 as a chemical used in the process of manufacturing polymers, twelve years before scientists were surprised discover it also develops in food during cooking. Since the discovery, scientists have struggled to find consistent evidence that acrylamide does, in fact, cause cancer in humans.
The 800 or more chemicals on California’s list may be “known to the state,” to be carcinogenic but other public health organizations do not necessarily agree. Decisions made by the board of experts advising California are controversial. The American Cancer Society cautions on its website “not all of [the chemicals on the Proposition 65 list] are known carcinogens by groups and experts outside the state of California. This means that not every compound labeled as a possible cancer-causing substance has been proven to the worldwide scientific community to actually cause cancer.” Acrylamide is one of those questionable additions. Although it has been shown to increase cancer rates in rodent studies and is therefore suspected of being a human carcinogen by default, scientific evidence proving a correlation thus far has been inconclusive.
The concentrations at which acrylamide has been proven to be dangerous in animal studies is 1,000 to 10,000 times the amount found in ordinary food products. It is highly unlikely that humans could ingest the same quantities from ordinary food. On the matter of acrylamide in food causing cancer, Dr. Lorelei Mucci, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said in 2017, “I take the findings from the epidemiology to suggest that dietary acrylamide does not increase the risk of cancer in humans given limited public health dollars, maybe those dollars would have a bigger impact on reducing cancer in the population through other means than reducing acrylamide in food.”
Furthermore, a large body of peer-reviewed studies accepted by the global medical community has shown no evidence that coffee raises the risk of developing cancer, and may protect from some cancers, in addition to providing other health benefits. Coffee is a complex substance, with 300 natural compounds and more than 1,000 others created during the roasting process. Despite being one of the world’s most popular beverages for more than 700 years, science has only recently acquired technology that is allowing it to understand how coffee functions in the human body. The observations of its impact on our health, however, are clear.
Health Organizations Disagree with California
In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) took the rare action of removing coffee from its list of possible carcinogens, which after a team of 23 experts reviewed over 1,000 studies, found no evidence of effect on cancers of pancreas, female breast, or prostate, and “reduced risks for cancers of the liver and uterine endometrium.” WHO had previously added coffee to its cancer watchlist in 1991 but later found the medical data used to be flawed, by “among other things, the fact that some cancer patients in those studies also smoked.”
The US Food and Drug Administration sides similarly on the issue, explicitly stating in its 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, “moderate coffee consumption (three to five 8 oz cups/day) can be incorporated into healthy eating patterns. This guidance on coffee is informed by strong and consistent evidence showing that, in healthy adults, moderate coffee consumption is not associated with an increased risk of major chronic diseases (e.g., cancer) or premature death, especially from CVD (cardiovascular disease).”
The American Institute for Cancer Research goes a step further, placing coffee on its list of “Foods that Fight Cancer.” An article on that organization’s blog by Dr. Edward Giovannucci, Professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, writes “on the “cancer worry scale” from 0 to 10, coffee should be solidly at 0 and smoking at 10.”
So why then, if coffee has widely accepted health benefits and the compound acrylamide is not proven to be toxic to humans, is California taking the step of warning consumers about a threat that is unlikely to exist? The answer lies in the drafting of Proposition 65. Proposition 65 was an innovative legal experiment intended to protect California’s citizens from toxins that cause cancer or affect reproductive health, but it was poorly designed. Environmental activists applaud the positive impact of some safety improvements resulting from the law, but both they and critics acknowledge significant flaws.
In 1986, the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board supported passage of the ballot measure into law, but by 2017 publicly acknowledged they had been wrong to do so. Ironically, the very example they used in support of Proposition 65 ultimately became their proof of its failure, writing in 1986: “Passage of Proposition 65 will not lead to the banning of ordinary table salt or require warning labels on every apple sold or cup of coffee served in California.”
Proposition 65’s primary failing is that it does not put risk into context, by assuming the toxicity of a chemical is not impacted by concentration or integration with others. That’s bad science. Adding to the confusion, its warning notices do not identify the chemical of concern. The American Chemistry Council sums up the situation by explaining “The label [law] improperly implies that the mere presence of a chemical justifies both a warning and the implication that the product itself isn’t safe.” It’s not enough to claim that coffee causes cancer.
Another problem is that anyone can file a claim against companies suspected of violating Proposition 65 and receive the judgement as a bounty or reward. A burden of proof is assumed by the defendant to prove innocence through costly litigation. The structure by which the law was designed to encourage public participation has attracted a flurry of frivolous lawsuits from attorneys, known as “bounty hunters” that make a living from such litigation. For illustration, of the $30 million paid in settlements for Proposition 65 cases in 2015, $21.5 million (72%) went to attorneys and legal fees. These fees and the cost of compliance with unnecessary product labeling for hazards that do not exist punish consumers with higher costs for products while providing limited benefit.
The acrylamide in coffee case was brought to California’s courts in a complaint filed by the non-profit Council for Education and Research and Toxics, a group founded by attorney Raphael Metzger in 2001. Mr. Metzger is also the legal counsel representing CERT and operates his tort law practice, the Metzger Law Group from the same Long Beach address. Both organizations share the same descriptive phone number, 1-877-TOX-TORT. Mr. Metzger successfully pursued similar litigation against McDonald’s and Burger King fast food restaurants in 2002 over the disclosure of acrylamide in French fries, and later in 2008 against potato chip manufacturers, who agreed to pay three million dollars in damages and legal fees to CERT and its attorney, who are essentially one and the same. Aside from filing lawsuits, the organization appears to be, “in-effect, nonexistent,” notes Manhattan health-effect claims attorney Nathan Schactman, who was quoted by the Los Angeles Times on the subject. CERT offers no education, and does no research, making its only apparent activity filing California Proposition 65 lawsuits. The attorney suing on behalf of CERT is its only board member, so “even if CERT does not itself profit from these lawsuits, its counsel and alter ego would appear to do so.”
So drink up California! Extensive medical data show that coffee is not only safe, but potentially protective against some cancers and other serious diseases. California’s Office of Environment Health Hazard Assessment is the only government authority that says otherwise, leaving consumers confused with unnecessary warning labels on ordinary food that have little meaning. Worse still, the flood of notices results from a system that is abused for the profit of opportunistic trial attorneys. Californians should be concerned about Proposition 65, but there’s no need to worry that coffee causes cancer.