Should Coffee Come With a Cancer Warning?

By Shannan Rouss ; Updated February 01, 2018

If you happen to live in California, you probably already know there are signs posted in parking garages, gas stations and restaurants warning you about exposure to certain toxins (from carbon monoxide to alcoholic beverages) that “are known to the State of California to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

In the coming months, that same warning may show up at Cali coffee joints, thanks to Proposition 65, a law that “requires businesses to notify Californians about significant amounts of chemicals in the products they purchase, in their homes or workplaces or that are released into the environment,” according to the state’s official site.

So why has coffee, which has been heralded for its health benefits and is beloved by so many of us, come under such scrutiny? Although coffee is rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants, it also contains acrylamide, “a possibly cancer-causing chemical that’s produced when coffee beans are roasted,” reports Time.

The Food and Drug Administration explains on its site that acrylamide forms during high-temperature cooking, including frying, roasting and baking. It’s the same chemical that shows up when potatoes are fried (hello, french fries) or bread is toasted. And the browner your fries or toast, the more acrylamide that is present.

But how dangerous is it? According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), although acrylamide has been found to increase the risk of cancer in lab animals, “the doses of acrylamide given in these studies have been as much as 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the levels people might be exposed to in foods.”

The ACS goes on to say that most human studies done so far have not found an increased risk of cancer, noting that: “For some types of cancer, such as kidney, endometrial and ovarian cancer, the results have been mixed, but there are currently no cancer types for which there is clearly an increased risk related to acrylamide intake.”

In a statement to CNN, National Coffee Association CEO Bill Murray said that labeling coffee as carcinogenic “has the potential to make a mockery of the Prop 65 cancer warning at a time when the public needs clear and accurate information about health.”

In an interview in the Wall Street Journal, retired Orange County, California, oncologist Warren Fong agrees: “You don’t scream warnings at people when the risk is really low and can’t change behaviors,” he said.

So instead of worrying about the acrylamide in your coffee, you might want to focus on how these things (like, you know, pesticides) affect your brew.

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