A judge in the state of California recently ruled that coffee companies in that state – most notably Starbucks – must add a cancer warning to their products.
The reason for this warning is the presence of a compound called acrylamide, which is found in all brewed coffee and certain other foods cooked at high temperatures (like French fries). Acrylamide is listed on the American Cancer Society’s website as a “probable carcinogen”, placing it in the same category as wood stove emissions, shiftwork involving circadian disruption (working the night shift), HPV, consumption of “very hot beverages” (defined as hotter than 65 degrees Celsius), and a very long list of chemicals.
In California, a law called “Proposition 65” mandates that all probable carcinogens must clearly and reasonably labeled for the public. As a result, cancer warnings are commonly seen in gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, parking garages, hotels, banks, and many other common areas of daily activity.
So, the question is: should you be concerned about your morning cup of joe causing cancer? After all, it contains acrylamide and is a “very hot beverage”, both of which are listed as probable carcinogens by the American Cancer Society.
Most studies have found that coffee consumers actually have a lower risk of cancer than those who don’t drink coffee. The International Agency for Research on Cancer found no increase in cancer risk for coffee drinkers, although they did find some evidence that consuming “very hot beverages” (including tea) may increase esophageal cancer risk. Coffee actually seemed to have a protective effect against breast cancer as well as several others, including cancers of the liver, prostate, and mouth.
Virtually all of the studies that found that coffee reduces cancer risk can only prove correlation, not causation. That being said, there’s enough data to confidently show that drinking coffee probably does not increase your risk of getting cancer. If most of the people drinking coffee contract cancer less often than those who don’t, the relationship between acrylamide in coffee and your cancer risk is probably not significant.
For some additional context, consider this: Proposition 65 mandates that any substance that is shown to cause one additional instance of cancer per 100,000 consumers be labeled for the public as a carcinogen. Acrylamide fits into that classification. But coffee also contains numerous antioxidants that are likely to benefit health and lower cancer risk – Proposition 65 doesn’t account for that. Coffee consumption also appears to decrease risks of other chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.
Go ahead, have your morning cup of coffee. It’s probably more helpful than harmful, regardless of what you might see in a Los Angeles Starbucks shop.