California Judge Orders Coffee Cancer Warnings, But Scientists Say There’s Nothing To Worry About

A number of experts stressed that there is not enough evidence to link the chemical agent acrylamide, which can be found in coffee, to the risk of cancer in humans.

California Judge Orders Coffee Cancer Warnings, But Scientists Say There's Nothing To Worry About
RomoloTravani / iStock

A number of experts stressed that there is not enough evidence to link the chemical agent acrylamide, which can be found in coffee, to the risk of cancer in humans.

Earlier this week, a California judge ruled that coffee companies will need to place a cancer warning label on their products, due to the supposed presence of a cancer-causing agent known as acrylamide. While this might have caused a lot of alarm among coffee drinkers, multiple experts believe that there’s nothing to worry about, as the link between acrylamide and cancer in human patients has yet to be established.

On Thursday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle ruled against several coffee companies, stating that the businesses were in violation of Proposition 65, a state regulation formally known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. As noted by the Washington Post, Prop 65 requires that companies that have at least 10 employees must inform consumers of any carcinogens and other potentially harmful chemicals in the products that they sell. The ruling was in relation to a lawsuit filed by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, a nonprofit organization that claimed coffee could cause cancer because it contains acrylamide.

According to the Los Angeles Times, acrylamide is one of almost 1,000 chemicals that are listed as confirmed or suspected carcinogens. In an earlier report, the Washington Post wrote that the chemical has been listed since the start of 1990, but was only found in cooked foods in 2002 and documented on a report by the Swedish National Food Administration. Aside from French fries, potato chips, and grain products, acrylamide can also be found in roasted coffee beans, the Los Angeles Times added.

Previous research had suggested that acrylamide could be harmful to mice and rats in doses of about 1,000 to 10,000 times to the normal levels found in foods. However, several experts believe that it still is not sure whether the same could apply to humans, and if acrylamide in coffee could increase one’s risk of cancer. Aside from the lack of evidence connecting acrylamide to cancer risk in humans, researchers cited the differences in animal and human biology, where species may metabolize chemical agents in varying ways.

“I think it’s crazy,” Harvard University senior research scientist Kathryn Wilson told the Los Angeles Times, in reaction to the court ruling to place cancer warning labels on coffee products.

“Reducing coffee or French fries to their acrylamide content isn’t how we study diet and nutrition.”

Similarly, American Institute of Cancer Research director of research Dr. Nigel Brockton said that the ruling is an “unfortunate” one, as it “demonizes” coffee as a cancer-causing product, despite scientific research backing up its benefits, or at least suggesting that it has no harmful effects on people.

Speaking to the Washington Post, American Cancer Society deputy chief medical officer J. Leonard Lichtenfeld said that the studies on rodents were done in the correct way, but emphasized that there still isn’t enough research to suggest that acrylamide puts humans at a substantially greater risk of developing cancer.

“From a practical standpoint would we recommend people stop drinking coffee as a result of the judge’s decision? No. That’s not what the science shows us.”

As further pointed out by the Washington Post, the ruling came months after the British Medical Journal published a meta-analysis of over 200 previous studies, suggesting the opposite of what the Los Angeles court’s decision suggested — coffee could help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, including leukemia, melanoma, and prostate cancer. The publication also cited a 2016 statement from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which stressed that coffee is “unclassifiable” as a carcinogen for humans.