Judge rules that coffee should be labelled as a carcinogen

Photo courtesy of WikiCommons

Photo courtesy of WikiCommons


In California, on March 28, Judge Elihu Berle ruled that coffee contains enough carcinogenic chemicals to merit labelling the drink itself as a carcinogen, much the way cigarettes are labelled. In the case, the judge ruled that the coffee retailer defendants, which included 7-Eleven and Starbucks, did not fully explain how the claimed health benefits of coffee outweighed the potential risks.

 Due to this inability to provide “a quantitative risk assessment that quantitatively compared any alleged health benefits with any adverse effects of coffee consumption” according to the judge’s decision, the coffee retailers violated a California law requiring them to disclose to customers if their products contain any one of more than 850 specified chemicals. This law, passed in 1986, is known as Proposition 65. It was passed with the intention of lowering cancer rates in the state by protecting water and land from toxic waste and requiring businesses to place clear warnings on products containing particular chemicals listed and controlled by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). It was because of the presence of one of these chemicals in coffee that led Berle to rule that the coffee retailers were neglecting their duties under Proposition 65 and would need to warn customers in the future about the health risks associated with the drink.

Coffee contains acrylamide, a carcinogen which is caused by the roasting process of the coffee beans. According to the National Cancer Institute, it is also found in industrial plastics, cigarette smoke and some foods which are heated, such as potatoes, crackers and bread. Despite the wide range of foods containing acrylamide and their implications for health, the most prolific way people are exposed to acrylamide is through cigarette smoke. Studies that have linked acrylamide to cancer often cite acrylamide levels in mice that are 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the levels found in food, according to the American Cancer Society. 

Part of the defense of the coffee producers and sellers was that the health benefits from drinking coffee outweigh the negative health outcomes. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2012 suggested that drinking coffee was associated with an approximately two-year increase in life span. While the study was unable to locate a causal relationship, similar studies carried out elsewhere, including in Japan and Finland, reached similar results. 

Practically, a law requiring coffee retailers to label their product as containing a carcinogen could have significant impacts. “I think it could be kind of problematic to start labelling everything that has a carcinogen because that’s so much of what we put in our bodies, like beauty products and food and medications. So I think it could have this desensitizing effect. You see a warning on cigarette packages ‘oh, warning, this could kill you’ but if you start seeing that on everything that you buy it’s going to have less of an effect than if you see it only on things that will actually have a serious effect on your health,” said Claire Beckett ’18.

Coffee’s gotten a bad health reputation due to its mildly addictive nature and the chemicals that it contains. However, whether it is a net positive or a net negative for drinkers’ health is still under deliberation in the scientific community. This deliberation makes it difficult for coffee retailers to justify its benefits and equally difficult for coffee non-believers to focus on its detriments. Legally, as the retailers in the case in California seek an appeal, there is no easy answer. Whether the state of California will enforce Proposition 65 on coffee retailers or whether they will change some of the language and implication of the law remains to be seen. 

As for whether a label would deter coffee drinkers, that’s also unclear. “I don’t think [a label] would make me stop drinking coffee. It’s just part of my daily routine and it’s a pretty healthy way to get my caffeine intake because I don’t put anything in it,” said Beckett. “Why would I drink pop or something instead and have all that sugar?”