California's Lawsuit Linking Coffee to Cancer Has Been Dismissed


If you’re one of the millions of Californians who can’t function without coffee, I have some good news: after 10 years, a number of judicial decisions, and much confusion, a California Superior Court judge has tossed out a lawsuit that sought to require coffee to be labelled as potentially cancerous. 

The kerfuffle over carcinogenic coffee dates back to 2010, initiated by a California non-profit Council for Education & Research on Toxics. In a lawsuit brought forth against 90 defendants ranging from Starbucks and Dunkin’ to Walmart and Costco, they argued that the presence of a chemical compound called acrylamide, which has a history of causing cancer in lab animals, means that coffee should be considered carcinogenic. As such, coffee should carry a carcinogenic warning label, in accordance with California’s Proposition 65 law.

While lab studies showed that acrylamide was toxic to animals at certain doses, it’s essentially a natural byproduct of heating organic materials at a high temperature. Whether you’re baking, frying, or, yes, roasting coffee, the so-called “Maillard reaction” essentially exposes humans to acrylamide. As such, there’s less consensus on how serious of a threat that it poses to humans, given that anyone who isn’t a lifelong raw food vegan has been exposed to acrylamide a number of times.

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As UC Davis professor and food toxicologist Alyson E. Mitchell notes, encountering the amount of acrylamide you’d find in a cup of coffee is also fundamentally different than what’s sometimes observed in laboratory settings.

“By feeding the animals high doses, you’re stripping away their ability to detoxify the acrylamide. If you are consuming coffee in low amounts, like in a cup of coffee, the body’s enzymes do break down the toxin,” Mitchell told Yahoo Finance. “This goes to the age old question in toxicology: Do high dose exposures in animals relate to low dose exposures in humans?”

That might explain why the legal battle over labelling has gone back and forth as long as it has. At one point, a California judge ruled that defendants would have to carry the warning labels. However,  a summary judgment issued on August 26 found a judge agreeing that a 2019 regulation from California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment meant the defendants were exempt from carrying the labels. In essence, OEHHA admitted that “exposure to chemicals in coffee… that are created by and inherent in the process of roasting coffee beans or brewing coffee do not pose a significant risk of cancer.”

Is it the end of the road for this coffee squabble? Very possibly, especially since CERT, a mysterious organization, no longer really exists. So in essence, it’s up to some other organization to pay those legal fees in the hopes of extracting a settlement from the coffee-brewing defendants. In the meantime, drink up. 


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