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California Court Stuns Coffee Industry with New Cancer Warning Label Requirement (Starbucks and Others Really Worried)
Carcinogenic chemical acrylamide in coffee triggers warning labels that has the industry in an uproar.
I've written several articles over the past few years lauding the benefits of coffee. Tons of research studies have found plenty of reasons why you should be drinking more coffeeand why coffee is really good for you.
However, a few days ago, a California court made an announcement that has stunned the coffee industry--giving huge companies like Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and other members of the National Coffee Association a severe case of the jitters.
California Proposition 65--the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act--requires businesses that expose customers to a long list of chemicals to post warning labels notifying the public of the risk of exposure. One of these chemicals is acrylamide--classified as a Group 2A carcinogen ("probably carcinogenic to humans") by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
It just so happens that acrylamide is created when coffee beans are roasted. Thus, the decision to require coffee to bear a cancer warning label--the result of a lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Council for Education and Research on Toxics in 2010.
In his proposed decision, Los Angeles Superior Court judge Elihu Berle wrote,
"Since defendants failed to prove that coffee confers any human health benefits, defendants have failed to satisfy their burden of proving that sound considerations of public health support an alternate risk level for acrylamide in coffee."
If this proposed decision goes into effect, then any businesses that fail to provide the warning notice will be subject to a fine for each violation of up to $2,500 a day.
But (no surprise), the coffee industry is not taking this decision sitting down. According to a statement by William Murray, president and CEO of the National Coffee Association,
"Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage.This lawsuit has made a mockery of Prop 65, has confused consumers, and does nothing to improve public health."
It's going to be interesting to see what comes of this. The industry will fight extremely hard to avoid its products from being slapped with cancer warning labels. For my own part, I'll have another shot of espresso while the parties sort it out.
Don’t worry about coffee’s cancer risk — or its health benefits
Don’t drink coffee because it may help you live longer. Do it because you enjoy it.
By Alessandra Potenza@ale_potenza Apr 2, 2018, 2:28pm EDT
A ruling from a Los Angeles judge last week now means that in California, coffee companies like Starbucks must warn customers of a potentially cancer-causing chemical found in coffee. Naturally, this gave jitters to coffee makers and coffee drinkers alike — and renewed a centuries-old debate: Is coffee bad for you?
A nonprofit group, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, sued 91 coffee companies for not warning consumers about a particular chemical produced when coffee beans are roasted. The chemical, called acrylamide, can also be found in some foods and cigarette smoke. Though it’s been shown to up the risk of various types of cancer in rats and mice — at least when they’re exposed to high doses — no such link has been confirmed in humans, according to the American Cancer Society.
“I’M NOT THE LEAST CONCERNED ABOUT COFFEE BEING A PROBLEM FOR CAUSING CANCER.”
The coffee companies, which included Starbucks, said there isn’t enough acrylamide in the coffee to harm consumers. But Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle ruled that the coffee companies didn’t show that acrylamide was present at safe levels; they also didn’t show that drinking coffee has benefits, according to the Associated Press. The case isn’t over: No one has yet determined how much money the coffee companies will pay. But it’s the latest example of a judge being called to weigh in on scientific matters; the same is happening with climate change and even researchers trying to take down their own critics.
In this case, the ruling was probably an overreaction, says John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine, health research, and policy at Stanford University. “I’m not the least concerned about coffee being a problem for causing cancer,” Ioannidis says in an interview. The amounts of acrylamide people are exposed to in their coffee are so low that it’s hard to say it’d cause cancer, he says. “Among the zillions of things that surround us,” Ioannidis says, coffee is “among the most safe in terms of cancer risk.”
Joseph Galati, medical director for the Center of Liver Disease and Transplantation at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, agrees. “I really do not believe that there’s any validity to this,” he says. People tend to gravitate towards stories about coffee causing cancer since drinking coffee is part of so many people’s routines. “We make a big hoopla about it,” Galati says, but “at the end of the day, it is really meaningless.”
In fact, many studies have shown that drinking coffee might actually protect people from developing prostate and liver cancer, melanoma, and a type of cancer in the lining of the uterus, according to a huge review of the scientific literature published last year in The British Medical Journal. For certain types of cancer, like colon cancer, the evidence is a little less clear, says Syed Kazmi, assistant professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center and colon cancer expert. Some studies show that drinking coffee might protect people from getting colon cancer, while others don’t see that association. But research suggests that coffee drinkers who are diagnosed with colon cancer live longer than cancer patients who don’t drink coffee, Kazmi says.
It’s not just cancer, either. Drinking three to four cups of joe a day might lower your risk of dying of heart diseases, such as coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, and stroke, says Donna Arnett, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Public Health and former president of the American Heart Association. There also seems to be no link between coffee intake and high blood pressure or irregular heart rhythm, she says. Some studies have even found that drinking coffee may reduce your risk of dying of an early death fromany disease, by as much as 64 percent. How exactly coffee helps us out is unclear: It could be that coffee has anti-inflammatory properties, Galati says, or that it is a good source of antioxidants, which protect cells from damage.
As good as these findings sound, you’d be wise to be skeptical of them, says Ioannidis. Many of these studies are observational; they rely on participants to accurately report their own eating, drinking, and lifestyle habits over a long period of time. That leaves a lot of room for error. People may not remember how much coffee they drink, or they may not report some behavior, like smoking, because they’re ashamed of it. Plus, there are so many factors that affect your health, and whether or not you develop cancer, and observational studies can’t really account for all of them. “It’s a complete mess and to be honest, I think these studies are getting nowhere and we should just quit doing them,” Ioannidis says.
“I WOULDN’T BE SURPRISED, ACTUALLY, IF THERE’S JUST NO MAJOR BENEFIT LIKE THERE’S NO MAJOR HARM.”
To really find out if coffee is beneficial, researchers should conduct randomized trials where thousands of participants are either assigned to a coffee-drinking group or a no-coffee group, and followed for at least five years, Ioannidis says. But Arnett says that in our society, where coffee is so prevalent, it’d be really hard to conduct such a study. If a coffee drinker is randomly assigned to the no-coffee group, will that participant really give up coffee for five years? “I’m not sure that a randomized controlled trial would be feasible,” Arnett says.
Even without those kinds of rigorous studies, drinking coffee is definitely not something you should worry about, Ioannidis says. (The US dietary guidelines say it’s totally fine to guzzle up to five cups of joe a day.) Maybe just don’t drown it with sugar and cream, Kazmi says. Plus, know your limits: If you’re very sensitive to caffeine and downing an espresso at 4 PM will keep you up all night, don’t do that. For people who have migraines, a little coffee can help stave off headaches, but too much caffeine can actually trigger them.
Ioannidis says that we may never know how coffee really affects our health. “I wouldn’t be surprised, actually, if there’s just no major benefit like there’s no major harm,” he says. So if you’re a coffee lover, there’s no need to change your habits. But don’t drink coffee because it may help you live longer. Do it because you enjoy it.
about the actual risk:
COFFEE CANCER WARNING: What science says about the actual risk.
Trouble is brewing for coffee lovers in California, where a judge ruled that sellers must post scary warnings about cancer risks. But how frightened should we be of a daily cup of joe? Not very, some scientists and available evidence seem to suggest.
Scientific concerns about coffee have eased in recent years, and many studies even suggest it can help health.
"At the minimum, coffee is neutral. If anything, there is fairly good evidence of the benefit of coffee on cancer," said Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health.
CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus, director of the Westside Cancer Center at USC, says he believes it is too early to put this kind of blanket warning on coffee.
"When you put a bold declaration that 'X may cause cancer' when there isn't data to that effect in humans, to me it causes panic rather than informed knowledge," he told "CBS This Morning."
The World Health Organization's cancer agency moved coffee off the "possible carcinogen" list two years ago, though it says evidence is insufficient to rule out any possible role.
The current flap isn't about coffee itself, but a chemical called acrylamide that's made when the beans are roasted. Government agencies call it a probable or likely carcinogen, based on animal research, and a group sued to require coffee sellers to warn of that under a California law passed by voters in 1986.
Coffee and your health
The problem: No one knows what levels are safe or risky for people. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets acrylamide limits for drinking water, but there aren't any for food.
"A cup of coffee a day, exposure probably is not that high," and probably should not change your habit, said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "If you drink a lot of cups a day, this is one of the reasons you might consider cutting that down."
Here's what's known about the risks.
Start with the biggest known risk factor for cancer - smoking - which generates acrylamide . In the diet, French fries, potato chips, crackers, cookies, cereal and other high-carbohydrate foods contain it as a byproduct of roasting, baking, toasting or frying.
Food and Drug Administration tests of acrylamide levels found they ranged from 175 to 351 parts per billion (a measure of concentration for a contaminant) for six brands of coffee tested; the highest was for one type of decaf coffee crystals. By comparison, French fries at one fast food chain ranged from 117 to 313 parts per billion, depending on the location tested. Some commercial fries had more than 1,000.
Even some baby foods contain acrylamide, such as teething biscuits and crackers. One brand of organic sweet potatoes tested as having 121 parts per billion.
What's the risk?
The "probable" or "likely" carcinogen label is based on studies of animals given high levels of acrylamide in drinking water. But people and rodents absorb the chemical at different rates and metabolize it differently, so its relevance to human health is unknown.
A group of 23 scientists convened by the WHO's cancer agency in 2016 looked at coffee - not acrylamide directly - and decided coffee was unlikely to cause breast, prostate or pancreatic cancer, and that it seemed to lower the risks for liver and uterine cancers. Evidence was inadequate to determine its effect on dozens of other cancer types.
The California law
Since 1986, businesses have been required to post warnings about chemicals known to cause cancer or other health risks - more than 900 substances are on the state's list today - but what's a "significant" risk is arguable.
Coffee sellers and other defendants in the lawsuit that spurred Thursday's ruling have a couple weeks to challenge it or appeal.
The law "has potential to do much more harm than good to public health," by confusing people into thinking risks from something like coffee are similar to those from smoking, Giovannucci said.
The International Food Information Council and Foundation, an organization funded mostly by the food and beverage industry, says the law is confusing the public because it doesn't note levels of risk, and adds that U.S. dietary guidelines say up to five cups of coffee a day can be part of a healthy diet.
Dr. Otis Brawley, the American Cancer Society's chief medical officer, said, "The issue here is dose, and the amount of acrylamide that would be included in coffee, which is really very small, compared to the amount from smoking tobacco. I don't think we should be worried about a cup of coffee."
Amy Trenton-Dietz, public health specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the California ruling contrasts with what science shows.
"Studies in humans suggest that if anything, coffee is protective for some types of cancer," she said. "As long as people are not putting a lot of sugar or sweeteners in, coffee, tea and water are the best things for people to be drinking