A recent preliminary decision in California court determined that coffee sellers will now have to warn customers about the potentially carcinogenic properties of their morning java—and people are (understandably) bugging out.
Almost a decade ago, a nonprofit called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics sued 19 coffee sellers, including Starbucks, for “failing to provide warnings to consumers that the coffee sold contained high levels of acrylamide, a toxic and carcinogenic chemical.” (They filed another complaint against an additional 40-plus defendants less than a month later.)
The nonprofit claimed that coffee sellers were violating a 1986 law known as Proposition 65, which requires the state of California to maintain a list of harmful chemicals “known to cause cancer and reproductive toxicity” and for businesses to inform citizens of any exposure to those chemicals. The chemical acrylamide, which is produced in a chemical reaction called the Maillard reaction that occurs between the sugar and asparagine when coffee beans are roasted, has been on California’s list of harmful chemicals since 1990.
Two years ago, the case went to trial to determine whether the amount of acrylamide in coffee was significant enough to warrant our favorite coffee sellers having to warn people about it. After much back-and-forth, the court ruled that, yes, a cup of Joe sold in the state of California should be labeled as possibly carcinogenic.
But does this really mean your favorite brewed beverage can cause cancer? Put simply: You don’t need to worry, says Dr. Taylor C. Wallace, Ph.D., C.F.S., F.A.C.N., disease prevention researcher and founder of nutrition consulting firm Think Healthy Group. “You have to remember that there is always a threshold of toxicological concern, which California isn’t really taking into consideration,” he says. “Acrylamide has been suggested to increase cancer, but not at levels present in a few cups of coffee,” he says—even if you’re sipping on a few brews most days.
The concern about acrylamide stems from rodent studies, which have shown that extremely high doses of the chemical—not the amount the average human coffee-drinker would ingest on a regular basis—increases cancer risk. “Rodent studies are helpful in identifying potential mechanisms when validated models are used, but many times do not translate to humans since they have a different set of genetics,” Wallace says. In other words, while animal studies are a good scientific starting point, they don’t necessarily apply or translate directly to human health, and shouldn’t send us running from coffee in fear.
If you’re still concerned, consider a similar case: A few decades back, saccharin, an artificial sweetener often found in sweetener packets and diet beverages like soda, was called into question after animal research suggested it could be carcinogenic. “But the dose needed to get that effect would have been something like 20,000 diet beverages per day for 20 years,” Wallace says. “Dose matters.”
Not to mention, coffee also contains many health-promoting bioactive compounds, such as the antioxidant chlorogenic acid, which has been associated with a lower risk of certain cancers. “You can’t look at each compound in isolation,” he says. This case just highlights the fact that science and the legal system don’t always intersect well.
So for now, keep on drinking your coffee. “There is a long history of safe use and a ton of safety data in the scientific literature,” Wallace says. Some research even suggests a connection between coffee and long-term health benefits, like reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline. Just remember that these health benefits are seen at a consumption level of about two cups of java per day.
To keep your daily coffee run as beneficial to your health as possible, the best thing you can do is limit the amount of sugar and saturated fat you add to your brew, since high calorie and sugar consumption are associated with weight gain, which can be a big driver of cancer, says Wallace.
And if you’re concerned about acrylamide, you’re better off focusing your effort on avoiding foods like baked goods, processed snacks, and potato chips, which also contain acrylamide—in addition to offering zero nutrition, Wallace says.