California state court: Coffee causes cancer. How worried should you be?

By Indraneel Ghosh

A state court in California has ruled that coffee companies would have to label the products they sell with a cancer warning. It was done on the grounds of the reasoning that drinking coffee may increase consumer’s chances of having cancer. This decision has led to a major uproar around the world as there is no proven study to support the claim. At the same time, it has raised worries in the minds of people who consume coffee on a regular basis.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle justified the ruling by saying that Starbucks and other companies had failed to show there was no significant risk from carcinogen produced in the coffee roasting process.

Background and authenticity of the claims

It all started with a little known not-for-profit group, Council for Education and Research, when it sued 90 major coffee retailers in California, including Starbucks, back in 2010. The grounds stated were that these companies had violated the California State Law. It requires the companies to warn their customers if their products contain chemicals which may cause cancer.

The roasted coffee beans contained a known carcinogen called acrylamide. A carcinogen is a chemical substance which can promote cancer. However, it’s not quite clear if the amount of acrylamide present in the coffee beans is high enough to pose a health risk. There is no scientific study which establishes the fact that the amount of carcinogen present in the coffee beans is harmful. In fact, the same chemical is present in several other food items that we eat in our daily diets like cereal and bread.

Acrylamide is found in general in roasted starchy food, French fries, and potato chips. It is also found in cigarette smoke. The chemical can cause cancer if it is present in the body in high concentrations. It has been shown to cause genetic mutations and damage the DNA structure.

Contrasting opinions

What’s more ironical is the fact that the US Dietary Guidelines state that coffee can be a part of a healthy lifestyle. The judgment passed seems to completely contradict this school of thought. In fact, cancer researchers are also of the opinion that coffee has no relation whatsoever to the life-threatening disease.

However, such accusations are not new. The coffee industry, around the world, maintains that the amount of the chemical present in the beverage is harmless. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer removed coffee from its “possible carcinogen” list in 2016. Most critics of the move have called it pointless and misleading. They believe that the state should focus on handling the other well-established factors like smoking.

Moderation is the key

If coffee is indeed proven to be harmful, people should exercise moderation while consuming the beverage. If one can afford it, one should switch to dark roast coffee. This is because the acrylamide gets destroyed later in the roasting process. Additionally, studies suggest that acrylamide levels in roasted coffee decline during long-term storage. Hence, it is better to opt for an older variety of coffee. They could otherwise switch to healthier beverages, depending on their personal tastes.

The industry is considering to take actions to protect themselves from the repercussions of the ruling. If the law is passed, it may cause havoc and change the public’s mindset towards the product. This may hamper the sales to the point that many of the leading companies may have to shut down. Taking such a decision with no solid scientific backing is naïve. In fact, the move might affect the entire world economy indirectly. It may drive coffee companies out of business in other parts of the world as well if other governments follow suit.

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