Does Coffee Cause Cancer?

Newsweek reports that California is going to add warning labels to coffee out of fear that coffee causes cancer. What is this all about? First what does Newsweek say?

A lawsuit filed by the organization in 2010 resumed earlier this week, the Associated Press reports. Its chief complaint is that retailers such as Starbucks, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s violated the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, also known as Proposition 65, according to court papers.

The plaintiff argues that these companies knowingly violated the health code, which states, “No person in the course of doing business shall knowingly and intentionally expose any individual to a chemical known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity without first giving clear and reasonable warning to such individual.”

The lawsuit hinges on whether or not the chemical acrylamide which is produced when coffee is roasted causes cancer in coffee drinkers. But it gets a little more complicated because of the law in California which maintains a list of chemicals that have caused cancer when given, sometimes in huge amounts, to laboratory animals. And if a chemical is on the list it should not be given to humans. The problem here is that when something is given in 10,000 fold higher amounts to a lab rat and causes cancer there needs to be some human evidence that the amounts that humans are exposed to really cause cancer. In addition the half-life of acrylamide in the human body is about two hours. That means every two hours after ingestion your body reduces the amount in your system by half. It does not hang around very long.

What Is Acrylamide and How Does It Get Into Coffee?

The American Cancer Society web site discusses acrylamide.

Acrylamide is a chemical used mainly in certain industrial processes, such as in making paper, dyes, and plastics, and in treating drinking water and wastewater. There are small amounts in some consumer products, such as caulk, food packaging, and some adhesives. Acrylamide is also found in cigarette smoke.

Acrylamide can also form in some starchy foods during high-temperature cooking, such as frying, roasting, and baking. Acrylamide forms from sugars and an amino acid that are naturally in food; it does not come from food packaging or the environment.

Foods that may contain acrylamide include potato products, grain products, or coffee. French fries and potato chips have the highest levels. When coffee is roasted acrylamide is formed and higher temperatures and longer roasting produce more of this chemical. The site discusses how scientists determine if a food substance causes cancer by first testing it on lab animals and then looking at human populations to see if folks who consume that food or drink have higher levels of cancer.

The only types of cancer where there may be a problem are cancers of the kidney, endometrium and ovary and those results are mixed. For example in 2011 we published a report of reduced endometrial cancer in coffee drinkers.

Researchers have noted a reduced endometrial cancer incidence in coffee drinkers. Data from the Harvard School of Public Health Nurses’ Health Study indicates that high coffee consumption is related to a twenty-five percent lower incidence of cancer of the lining of the uterus, endometrial cancer. Endometrial cancer is the most common type of cancer of the uterus.

What to Do?

The EPA regulates the acceptable level of acrylamide in water from industrial exposure. It may turn out that some government agency will regulate the acceptable level of acrylamide in coffee. In the meantime please realize that the Council for Education and Research on Toxics appears to be a front for the law firm pursuing the suit in California. A somewhat cynical web page put up by another lawyer is instructive. It appears that the only purpose of the “Council” is to lend legitimacy to the law suit. If the plaintiffs win they will want “$2,500 per exposed person each day” as damages. That is a lot of money for alleged damages from a drink that has been shown to prolong life, reduce the risk of diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, various forms of cancer, etc.

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