May 2, 2018
by Gary Pace M.D.
On March 28, a California judge ruled in favor of forcing coffee sellers to post signs that coffee contains cancer-causing agents. Uh oh! Just how dangerous is coffee? Do these warnings serve any useful purpose? And how can we make sense of this latest attempt by the government to protect our health?
The warning signs that we see in stores and restaurants in California started in 1986 when a ballot measure,Proposition 65, passed with 63 percent of the vote. A list of cancer-causing agents that require warnings currently contains over 900 chemicals (including acrylamide, the targeted substance that is in coffee) .
The research on whether these warnings actually change human behavior has been somewhat inconclusive. While the warnings on cigarette packages do seem to bring about a slightly higher rate of smoking cessation, it appears that limiting access or raising prices are probably more useful strategies for changing bad habits. For example, raising the age to buy cigarettes to 21 has had a clearly positive effect, while placing warning labels on the packages seems less directly effective.
This recent suit was brought against businesses like Starbucks and 7-11 byCETOS, a non-profit interested in decreasing human exposure to toxins. Acrylamide is suspected of being carcinogenic, and it can be produced when coffee beans are roasted. They argued that stores that sell coffee should be required to post warning signs.
A similar suit brought by CETOS against potato chip manufacturers a few years ago over acrylamide led the companies to change their manufacturing process to eliminate the substance, and therefore ended the
need to post warning signs. Apparently, they had hoped for the same result here. Unfortunately, coffee producers claim they are unable to make such processing changes, because it negatively affects the taste of the coffee. So, it went to court.
“Acrylamide is ubiquitous in our food chain. It’s a product of high heat and prolonged cooking, particularly with carbohydrates It is a chemical to which we have frequent exposure,” says Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. It’s found in many common products, such as fried potatoes, olives, some breads, and also in cigarette smoke and some manufactured products.
Studies have found an increased cancer risk in mice and rats who were fed acrylamide, but these were at extremely high doses, up to 10,000 times the levels consumed by humans. There have been no good studies showing acrylamide causing cancers in humans. “Most experts are going to look at the risk of acrylamide in coffee and conclude that this is not something that’s going to have a meaningful impact on human health,” Lichtenfeld says.
A review of more than 1,000 studies found no consistent link between drinking coffee and more than 20 types of cancer, according to a working group of scientists who met in 2016 at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization.
Although there has been a great deal of interest in uncovering any negative health effects of coffee, studies have not consistently found problems at consumption levels of a few cups a day. Some research even suggests that a typical pattern of 2-3 cups a day maybe even better for long-term health than not drinking any coffee at all. This was the crux of the coffee industry arguments in this suit—that there are actually health benefits. The judge was not swayed, and the Prop 65 mandated warnings were allowed to stand.
It appears that coffee is not going to be banned for health reasons any time in the near future. Whew! This latest labeling mandate seems to have been a situation where an attempt to push the coffee processors to shift their practices to make the product safer, actually ended up leading to more labeling regulations. Using the labels as an impetus to go and look at the current science should serve to reassure most people that there is no conclusive evidence at this point that there are serious health risks with coffee.
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