Is Coffee Cancerous?

A judge in California ruled earlier this week that coffee shops in California would have to put warning labels on all cups of coffee sold to inform customers about potential cancer risks. The ruling was made in accordance with California’s Proposition 65, which requires companies to disclose to customers if they include in their products a chemical which causes cancer or birth defects. The office of the California governor publishes the list of chemicals requiring this notification annually.

The culprit here is acrylamide, a chemical created when coffee beans are roasted at high temperatures. So far, acrylamide has only been linked to cancerous growth in animals—where larger amounts of the chemical correspond to larger risk—and never in humans. Further, the amounts of acrylamide ingested by the tested rodents were significantly larger than the amounts humans are exposed to in their morning cup of Joe.

Acrylamide can be found in a variety of common foods, including cereal, French fries, toast, and roasted nuts. According to the FDA’s website, it can also be found in “plastics, water treatment products, and cosmetics.”

Coffee giants, including Starbucks, fought against the California lawsuit on the grounds that coffee is considered by many scientists to be a healthy beverage. Opponents cited evidence like that found in a NIH report which suggests acrylamide maintains “significant evidence of carcinogenicity.”

So, to what degree should customers be concerned that their daily coffee intake could be causing them cancer? It’s a difficult question to answer—especially because the definite link between acrylamide and cancer in humans is not explicitly defined—but the presence of acrylamide in such a wide variety of products, food and otherwise, makes it difficult to avoid the chemical entirely.