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No, coffee isn't going to give you cancer (despite California's warning)

With a judge’s latest preliminary ruling, it looks like coffee will soon be added to a growing list of products and facilities that come with a cancer warning in California. Already on that list? Black licorice, potato chips, balsamic and red wine vinegars, Tiffany-style lamps, canned foods and that ever-popular theme park Disneyland.

The warnings are the result of the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, aka California’s Proposition 65, which requires businesses to provide “a clear and reasonable warning” to customers about the presence of carcinogenic and toxic chemicals in their products or at their locations.

At last count, there were 992 chemicals on the Prop 65 list of Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer or Reproductive Toxicity. One of those chemicals, acrylamide, is created when certain plant-based foods are cooked, baked, fried or roasted at high temperatures. The foods implicated include everything from baked goods and french fries to, yes, coffee (which is made by roasting beans at high temperatures).

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), although acrylamide has been shown 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 concluded: “Based on the studies done so far, it’s not yet clear if acrylamide affects cancer risk in people.”

But back in 2002, after Swedish researchers first discovered the presence of acrylamide in certain foods, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s and Burger King for not warning consumers about the acrylamide in their french fries. CERT settled that suit in 2008, which is why Californians can find Prop 65 signs in fast-food joints.

CERT is also responsible for the latest lawsuit against coffee. As others have pointed out, while there’s no official website for CERT, the organization shares a phone number (1-877-TOX-TORT) and address with the lawyer representing it. That same lawyer, Raphael Metzger, represented CERT in the french fries suit as well.

In response to the judge’s ruling in the coffee case, National Coffee Association CEO William Murray told CNN: “Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage. The U.S. government’s own Dietary Guidelines state that coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle. This lawsuit simply confuses consumers and has the potential to make a mockery of Prop 65 cancer warning at a time when the public needs clear and accurate information about health.”

It’s not just the National Coffee Association defending java. Back in 2016, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization), reviewed more than 1,000 human and animal studies and said that it “found no conclusive evidence for a carcinogenic effect of drinking coffee.” The agency added that, in some cases, there is evidence that drinking coffee may actually help reduce the risk of cancers of the liver and uterine endometrium.

While it’s likely that defendants in the coffee suit will appeal the judge’s ruling, many have already complied with Prop 65 and posted warnings. You can find them at California Starbucks, 7-Elevens and elsewhere. And that’s a problem, argue critics of Prop 65.

Although the proposition was created with good intentions, today the warning signs are so ubiquitous that people hardly notice them. “This defeats the purpose of Proposition 65, which was conceived as a way to alert consumers to when they may be exposed to lead and other dangerous chemicals — and spur companies to use fewer of them,” wrote the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times in 2017.

The editorial board went on to write: “Dangerous chemicals are so widespread, it’s impossible to conduct a normal life without encountering them. This is why it is important to warn consumers about serious health risks, not merely conjectural ones. Proposition 65 is not accomplishing that, and by rendering people numb to the warnings, it may in fact be doing more harm than good.”

So until there’s real evidence about the risks of acrylamide in coffee, we’ll just be over here enjoying our daily organic brew.