California coffee cancer warning: another advisory you'll ignore

Concerns over a chemical called acrylamide have prompted one California judge to put a new burden on coffee companies: they must include a cancer warning on their product. California is known for its cancer advisories, which can be found on a huge number of products, and coffee beans are now counted among them. The legal decision follows a nonprofit's lawsuit accusing some companies of violating state law by not warning customers about alleged cancer risk.

The issue revolves around roasted coffee, with the roasting process itself producing a carcinogen. In 2010, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, also called CERT, filed a lawsuit against Starbucks and around 90 other companies over the lack of a cancer warning alerting consumers to the potential risk.

Some companies have settled the case, according to Reuters, by agreeing to pay hefty fines and post advisories. However, other defendants, including Starbucks, have challenged the lawsuit. The first phase of the trial wasn't in their favor, though, with Judge Elihu Berle stating that the defendants have to demonstrate that acrylamide doesn't present a significant risk to consumers.

The carcinogen's impact on human health isn't clear. Studies performed on lab rodents have found that exposure to acrylamide can be linked to cancerous tumor formation; the chemical can also be neurotoxic. One study states:

Since there is 'sufficient evidence' of carcinogenicity in experimental animals as outlined under the U.S. EPA proposed guidelines for carcinogen risk assessment, acrylamide should be categorized as a 'B2' carcinogen and therefore be considered a 'probable human carcinogen.' The very limited human epidemiological data do not provide sufficient evidence to enable one to judge the actual carcinogenic risk to humans.

Whether exposure to the amounts of acrylamide found in coffee is sufficient enough to put human health at risk is unclear. The key thing to note is that consuming roasted coffee containing acrylamide doesn't guarantee someone will develop cancer because of it.

As well, other studies have demonstrated potential health benefits derived from consuming coffee, further muddying the waters. Acrylamide isn't only found in roasted coffee, but also many fried and grilled food products, including things like burgers cooked at a high heat, french fries, potato chips, and more.