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California court ruling could force coffee shops to include cancer warnings

A preliminary decision by a California superior court judge could cause coffee shops in the state to start warning that their drinks cause cancer. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

A preliminary decision by a California superior court judge could cause coffee shops in the state to start warning that their drinks cause cancer.

According to the proposed statement of the decision after trial, “sellers of ready-to-drink coffee, failed to provide warnings to consumers that the coffee sold contained high levels of acrylamide, a toxic and carcinogenic chemical, in violation of Proposition 65 (the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986).” Proposition 65 orders companies to give a “clear and reasonable warning” about high levels of certain chemicals that could “cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.”

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, a nonprofit. This was only a preliminary decision. The defendants have until April 10 to file objections. After that, the judge will reach a final decision.

What is acrylamide?

A chemical called acrylamide is created naturally when coffee beans are roasted. Acrylamide is also on a 22-page list of chemicals “known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity” maintained by the state of California, and listed as cancer-causing. However, the American Cancer Society says that “Based on the studies done so far, it’s not yet clear if acrylamide affects cancer risk in people.”

In addition, two studies published in 2017 also linked coffee drinking to a reduced risk of cancer, as well as a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and stroke.

According to the American Cancer Society, acrylamide forms “when certain starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures (above about 250° F). Cooking at high temperatures causes a chemical reaction between certain sugars and an amino acid (asparagine) in the food, which forms acrylamide. Cooking methods such as frying, baking, broiling, or roasting are more likely to create acrylamide, while boiling, steaming, and microwaving appear less likely to do so. Longer cooking times and cooking at higher temperatures can increase the amount of acrylamide in foods further.”

In addition to coffee, acrylamide is found in potato products like French fries and potato chips, as well as grain products like bread.

Who are the defendants?

Defendants on this case include Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc., the J.M. Smucker Company, Kraft Foods Global, and Starbucks Corporation. William Murray, the president and CEO of the National Coffee Association, said in a statement to CNN: "Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage. This lawsuit has made a mockery of Prop 65, has confused consumers, and does nothing to improve public health.”

But attorney Raphael Metzger, who filed the lawsuit, called this a “good day for public health.”

“It's not a final decision yet, but I do think this is big news, and I'm much relieved after eight years of work on this,” Metzger said.

Metzger reportedly drinks a few cups of coffee each day, and thinks coffee companies can remove acrylamide without hurting their brew. The coffee companies, however, argue that this would destroy the taste of the coffee.


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