The Grapevine

Are Cancer Warning Labels For Coffee Justified Or Misleading?

Drinking Coffee
A California judge recently ruled coffee sellers must use a cancer warning label. Alexis Chloe/Unsplash

A judge in California ruled last week coffee sold in the state will be required to carry cancer warnings, a verdict that left consumers both surprised and conflicted. According to the ruling, the health risk was stated to be a result of acrylamide, a chemical produced during the roasting of coffee beans. 

The Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) filed a lawsuit against Starbucks and 90 other companies, requiring them to either remove acrylamide or use cancer warning labels on the beverage. The companies have stated the former is not feasible. 

“Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving... that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health,” Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle wrote.

However, this has come as a surprise to the public, noting the growing number of studies that have acknowledged coffee consumption is not only safe but may also carry potential health benefits. An observational study from 2017 found the drink was associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and early death, stating that coffee consumption may benefit all groups with the exception of pregnant women. Many studies from recent years have also arrived at similar findings.

Metzger Law Group, which sued the coffee companies on behalf of the CERT, cited a Swedish study from 2002 and stated: "The highest levels of the carcinogen were found in french fries and potato chips, but high levels of acrylamide have also been found in cereals, breads, and coffee."

However, William Murray, the president and CEO of the National Coffee Association, stated traces of acrylamide are undoubtedly present in coffee but are not high enough in quantity to present a significant risk. 

“Coffee is much more than acrylamide — it literally contains hundreds of substances, and is one of the most heavily studied foods of all time. … Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage,” Murray said, adding cancer warning labels would be “simply confusing and misleading.”

Murray is not alone, as numerous experts and organizations have responded to the ruling by easing people's concerns. 

"At the minimum, coffee is neutral. If anything, there is fairly good evidence of the benefit of coffee on cancer," said Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health. 

What coffee drinkers can take away is their favorite morning drink is more beneficial than detrimental to health, as suggested by a majority of studies. Health risks only seem to be linked to certain factors such as extreme heat or high doses, the abundant use of sugar and sweeteners, and going over two cups a day for vulnerable groups such as pregnant women.

"The issue here is dose and the amount of acrylamide that would be included in coffee, which is really very small, compared to the amount from smoking tobacco. I don't think we should be worried about a cup of coffee," said Dr. Otis Brawley, the American Cancer Society's chief medical officer.

After reviewing more than thousands of human and animal studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (the cancer agency of the World Health Organization) removed coffee from its “possible carcinogen” list in 2016.