A single judge just gave California coffee sellers a huge headache

Can coffee lead to cancer?
Can coffee lead to cancer?
Image: Photo by Amy Sussman/Invision for Purina ONE/AP Images
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A judge in California ruled this week (March 29) to back a 1986 law that requires coffee companies, distributors, and retailers to warn consumers when a carcinogenic chemical is in their product. The businesses—which may appeal the ruling—argue their products are safe and that removing the chemical would affect taste.

The chemical is acrylamide, which is created when some foods are fried, roasted, or grilled for too long—think burnt toast, potatoes, or in this case, coffee beans. Past studies have linked the chemical to the formation of tumors in animals, leading scientists to deduce it could possibly lead to cancer in humans. To date, no studies have shown that and the chemical’s impacts on human health are not fully understood.

The eight-year court battle stems from a state law that requires businesses in California to warn consumers of chemicals in their products that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. The list includes acrylamide among hundreds of other potential carcinogens.

The chemical’s presence in coffee was at one point on a list of potential carcinogens kept by the United Nation’s World Heath Organization (WHO), but in 2016 the organization removed coffee from the list. That acrylamide has been dubbed a carcinogen does not necessarily mean a person will get cancer if he or she comes into contact with it. A year earlier, the US government released an updated version of its dietary guidelines for Americans, which pointed to coffee for its health benefits. And last year, research involving half a million people in Europe showed that three cups of coffee per day may be good for people.

In court, coffee companies and retailers argued that the levels of acrylamide in their coffees is too insignificant to be linked to the threat of cancer. Still, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle wrote in her tentative decision that the businesses did not meet the requisite burden of proof. Those not in lock-step with the law could be fined up to $2,500 every time a consumer was exposed to the chemical without a warning.