By Brendan Pringle
The cup of Joe is getting the Joe Camel treatment after a California Superior Court judge ruled that Starbucks and 89 other coffee companies in the state will have to post warnings because brewed coffee may contain a carcinogen.
As a result, coffee cups may soon like cigarette packs, emblazoned with warning labels linking coffee to cancer.
The judge was interpreting a state law, Proposition 65, that requires warning labels for chemicals associated with cancer or birth defects – and which allows private citizens, advocacy groups and attorneys to sue on behalf of the state for failure to provide warnings.
Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle did not find that coffee causes cancer. Instead, he ruled that coffee companies had “failed to meet their burden of proof by preponderance of evidence on their affirmative defenses of ‘no significant risk level.’”
In other words, the judge asked the defendants to prove a negative: that coffee doesn’t cause cancer. This feat is impossible based on the fact that nature is full of organic carcinogens.
While Proposition 65 is the law of the land for California, there is little proof to suggest that coffee actually causes cancer. A chemical released when beans are roasted – acrylamide – is listed as a “possible carcinogen.”
This is not surprising. Back in the 1970s, Dr. Bruce Ames, a UC Berkeley professor, developed the “Ames test” as a quick way of testing chemicals for their ability to induce mutations in DNA. About a decade later, he and his collaborator Lois Gold discovered that every plant contains natural toxins, suggesting that natural carcinogenic chemicals may not be all that dangerous at normal levels.
“There are over 1000 chemicals reported in a cup of coffee,” Ames said. “Only 26 have been tested in animal cancer tests and more than half are rodent carcinogens; there are still a thousand chemicals left to test. The amount of potentially carcinogenic pesticide residues consumed in a year is less than the amount known of rodent carcinogens in a cup of coffee. The reason we can eat the tremendous variety of natural chemical rodent carcinogens in our food is that animals are extremely well defended against all chemicals by many general defense systems.”
After aggregating and reviewing more than 1000 studies in humans and animals, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found that “there was inadequate evidence for the carcinogenicity of coffee drinking overall.”
Studies suggested that coffee drinking had “no carcinogenic effects for cancers of the pancreas, female breast, and prostate, and reduced risks were seen for cancers of the liver and uterine endometrium.” The evidence was “inconclusive” on other cancers. The American Cancer Society agrees that “there are currently no cancer types for which there is clearly an increased risk related to acrylamide intake.”
Despite the increased visibility of mandated notices, the decision likely won’t mean much for the coffee houses.
An article in the Harvard Business Review found that warnings have become so ubiquitous in California that people have become inoculated to them.
Several California-based Starbucks baristas echoed a similar sentiment.
“Honestly, what doesn’t cause cancer today?,” said Starbucks shift supervisor Jofni Flores of Paso Robles, California.
Flores isn’t far off.
California Law seeks to protect consumers against approximately 900 different “hazardous chemicals” under Proposition 65. Retailers, restaurants, cafes and other businesses are required to post a notice, or risk an expensive lawsuit.
Flores said that his Starbucks branch moved the Proposition 65 sign to a more visible location at the cream and sugar station several weeks ago, but customers have yet to react to the signs, with one exception.
“There’s one guy who always gets a pourover because he’s worried about getting cancer,” said barista Kimberly Cornejo, one of Flores’ co-workers.
Pourover brewing involves pouring hot water over and through the grounds in a filter rather than through a machine.
Unfortunately for this concerned customer, the American Cancer Society explains that acrylamide actually forms when coffee beans are roasted–not when coffee is brewed. Whether a customer is enjoying a drip brewed, cold brewed, French pressed, pourover or espresso, they are all just as likely to be consuming this chemical. As a result, consumers who make their own coffee at home are just as unlikely to get cancer as those who opt for the café.
“I think it’s good to be aware of it,” said barista Aislyn Swift, who serves a nearby Starbucks in Paso Robles. “You would think it would have an effect on people but it really doesn’t.”