This last week, you may have heard about the ruling by a California judge requiring coffee companies to put a cancer warning on coffee beverages sold in the state. But—haven’t there been many studies touting the health benefits of coffee? Why is California making this requirement?
All the troubles start with a chemical compound called acrylamide. In the process of roasting coffee beans into that delicious dark roast you enjoy so much, acrylamide is generated through a chemical reaction called the Maillard Reaction when sugars and amino acids (naturally occurring in the coffee bean) are cooked at high temperature.
Unfortunately, this compound happens to be on a list in California, called the Proposition 65 list, which contains chemicals “known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.” The reason that acrylamide is on the Proposition 65 list is mainly because of a Swedish study published on the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) a decade ago, which evaluated acrylamide and women’s breast cancer risk. Specifically, 43,404 Swedish women were evaluated from the years 1991 through 2002 with the average age of 39 at the start of the study. The data seems to show that the women with the higher consumption of food containing acrylamide have the higher cancer risk. However, despite all the data analysis in the paper, the authors concluded at the end of the paper that “Compared with the lowest quintile of acrylamide intake, there was no significantly increased risk of breast cancer in the higher quintiles and no evidence of a linear dose response.”
In 2010, citing the Swedish study, a California-based nonprofit, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT), sued 90 coffee retailers, including Starbucks, on the ground that they were violating California law requiring companies to warn consumers of chemicals in their products that could cause cancer. Last week, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle sided with CERT and ruled that coffee must carry cancer warnings.
While some animal research has shown that acrylamide can cause DNA damage that may lead to a heightened risk of cancer, the evidence is much less clear in humans. After the Swedish study (which in itself was inconclusive on the link between the acrylamide from food source and cancer risk in human), many studies have been carried out and none seems to be conclusive. At the minimum, this is a case that law outstepped the science.
While the jury is still out on whether acrylamide in coffee causes cancer, if you are truly worried about the cancer risk but need that caffeine fix, try Mocca Shots, a delicious caffeinated dark chocolate gummy with each gummy equals to one cup of coffee. You can find it here.
Journal Reference: Lorelei A. Mucci; Sven Sandin; Katarina Balter, et al., “Acrylamide Intake and Breast Cancer Risk in Swedish Women,” JAMA. 2005; 293(11): 1322-1327. doi:10.1001/jama.293.11.1326