Coffee needs a cancer warning? California judge says so—but experts say it's bunk.

A California judge on Wednesday tentatively ruled that coffee sold in the state must contain a cancer warning because of a carcinogen called acrylamide that is present in roasted coffee beans—but public health experts dismissed the supposed cancer link, and a coffee industry spokesperson said the lawsuit had "made a mockery" of state law.

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Background

Acrylamide is chemical produced when a coffee bean is roasted. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), research has shown acrylamide increases the risk of cancer in mice and rats when it is placed in the animals' drinking water at doses "1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the levels people might be exposed to in foods." However, among humans, recent research on coffee has shown there is "probable" evidence that consuming coffee is associated with a decrease in the risk of certain cancers, such as breast and colon cancers. But overall, ACS said, "there are currently no cancer types for which there is clearly an increased risk related to acrylamide intake."

Recent studies and analyses also have found drinking coffee might have health benefits and reduce the risk of several cancers and premature death. The World Health Organization in 2016 removed coffee from a list of "possible carcinogens," stating there is "no conclusive evidence for a carcinogenic effect of drinking coffee," according to the Los Angeles Times.

Lawsuit details

But the Council for Education and Research on Toxics has pushed for the coffee industry to eliminate acrylamide from the process involved in producing coffee similar to the way potato chip makers did. In 2010, the organization filed a lawsuit against 90 companies, claiming coffee sellers in California violated the state's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, which requires that companies with at least 10 employees warn individuals of any exposure to more than 850 confirmed or suspected carcinogens, including acrylamide, at the point of sale.

The Council for Education and Research on Toxics in the lawsuit argued a 12-ounce serving of coffee contains levels of acrylamide that are statistically significant.

The defendants—which include Starbucks, Peets, and other major chains—argued that the chemical was present at levels harmless to humans and should be exempt from the law because it is produced naturally through the cooking process. They also argued that coffee contains health benefits.

Throughout the course of the eight-year litigation process, some defendants, such as 7-Eleven, have negotiated settlements under which they agreed to display the warnings. Others, including Starbucks, have continued to challenge the suit, arguing that the level of acrylamide in coffee does not pose any harm and any risks are outweighed by benefits.

Judge says coffee sellers failed to prove acrylamide does not pose health risks

On Wednesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle in a preliminary ruling said coffee sellers had failed to meet the burden of proof to show consumers can safely be exposed to acrylamide without cancer risk and failed to show requiring cancer warnings would violate the First Amendment.

Berle wrote, "While plaintiffs offered evidence that consumption of coffee increases the risk of harm to the fetus, to infants, to children and to adults, defendants' medical and epidemiology experts testified that they had no opinion on causation."

As a result, Berle ruled coffee sellers in the state will have to provide cancer warning labels on their products because of the presence of acrylamide.

Berle will issue a final ruling in the case after both sides have had an opportunity to respond to his tentative decision. The next phase of the trial will involve determining civil penalties for the defendants. Under state law, the defendants can face civil penalties of up to $2,500 for each time a consumer is exposed to a confirmed or suspected carcinogen without a cancer warning, according to the Los Angeles Times

According to Washington Post's "To Your Health," the Council for Education and Research on Toxics has requested fines of up to $2,500 for each person exposed to acrylamide since 2002, which could result in substantial penalties.

Implications

Although the ruling in the case is tentative, it is not likely the decision will be reversed, "To Your Health" reports. According to the Times, the lawsuit could affect 90 coffee distributors, retailers, and roasters in California, including Kraft, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Whole Foods.

According to the AP, the case could affect other states, because companies might decide to redesign their packaging to include the labels on all their products rather than exclusively tailoring their products for California's large consumer market. As such, coffee drinkers in other states might see the warning labels, as well.

Raphael Metzger, the attorney representing the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, said he hopes the judge's decision will lead coffee sellers to reduce the levels of acrylamide in coffee. He said, "I would very much prefer that, when my addiction compels me to drink coffee, I can drink acrylamide-free coffee." He continued, "I firmly believe if the potato chip industry can do it, so can the coffee industry. A warning won't be that effective because it's an addictive product." He added, "They just don't want to change. They want to keep doing business the way they have been doing."

William Murray, president and CEO of the National Coffee Association, said "This lawsuit has made a mockery of [the state law], has confused consumers, and does nothing to improve public health." Murray said the coffee industry is considering whether to take legal action, the Times reports.

Starbucks did not immediately respond to a request for comment, "To Your Health" reports.

Don't kick your coffee habit over cancer concerns, public health experts say

However, in the wake of the ruling public health experts are pushing back against the notion that coffee poses a cancer risk.

Mariana Carla Stern, a professor of preventive medicine and urology at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, said, "I can understand the logic of the judge, by going by the book. But I can also understand the science. From the science standpoint, there's no reason the public should worry about drinking coffee."

Kathryn Wilson, a senior research scientist in epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, acknowledged that studies in animals have shown acrylamide at high levels causes cancer, but there is less evidence demonstrating acrylamide causes cancers in humans. Wilson said, "Reducing coffee or French fries to their acrylamide content isn't how we study diet and nutrition." Wilson said the court's decision could lead people to divert their attention from things—such as obesity—closely tied to cancer.

Nigel Brockton, director of research at the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), in a statement said, "It is unwise, in this case, to extrapolate studies from animals to humans because the metabolism of acrylamide differs considerably, and the doses used in lab studies are not comparable." He added, "The beneficial effects of coffee, even for relatively high intakes, have been demonstrated and are linked to improvements in insulin control, antioxidant responses and reduced inflammation—all of which provide protection against cancer."

Leonard Lichtenfeld, ACS' deputy chief medical officer, said, "There are no well-done human studies that answer the question [of whether acrylamide causes cancer in humans] definitively." He continued, "From a practical standpoint would we recommend people stop drinking coffee as a result of the judge’s decision? No." He said, "That's not what the science shows us" (Delk, The Hill, 3/29; Melley, AP/Sacramento Bee, 3/30; Rosenburg, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 3/29; Kim, Los Angeles Times, 3/29; HealthDay/WebMD, 3/28; Giovannucci, AICR blog, 3/30; AICR release, 3/30; Guarino/Rosenberg, Washington Post, 3/30; Karlamangla/Kim, Los Angeles Times, 3/30 ).

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