Caution is Not Inherently Bad, But Coffee Just Got a Bad Rap

Roasting coffee creates trace amounts of acrylamide

Coffee and tea share many healthful plant-based compounds. The science-based consensus is that each beverage holds significant benefits when consumed in moderation.

But in the court of public opinion, coffee can’t seem to get a break.

Last week a California Superior Court judge ruled that coffee sold in California must display a Prop 65 label that warns the product “contains one or more chemicals known to cause cancer…”

The chemical is acrylamide. It is not added to coffee, it is a contaminant that forms during the roasting process. It is present in very small quantities in French fries, roasted meat, and baked foods from cereals and crackers to toast.

Coffee shops that fail to display the warning are subject to a $2,500 fine per day. Starbucks, major grocers that serve coffee, restaurants and other retailers anticipated the decision, many already have posted the warning. Posting the signs does not protect shops from fines for past failures (prior to the ruling).

William “Bill” Murray, president and CEO of the National Coffee Association (NCA) maintains that cancer warning labels are “misleading” at a “time when the public needs clear and accurate information about health.”

“This lawsuit has made a mockery of Prop 65, has confused consumers and does nothing to improve public health,” he said. “Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage,” said Murray.

“The US government’s own Dietary Guidelines state that coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that coffee does not cause cancer. Study after study has provided evidence of the health benefits of drinking coffee, including longevity – coffee drinkers live longer,” he said.

No acrylamide is found it tea, but it does contain caffeine, a chemical periodically under critical review. The shadow cast by this ruling demonstrates how fear can overwhelm messaging about coffee’s legitimate heath benefits in the public eye.

In this instance the plaintiffs never demonstrated that coffee harmed anyone. Instead, the lawyers working for Starbucks and Dunk ‘n Donuts, the NCA, and McDonald’s were required to demonstrate that coffee did not pose any health risks. Citing coffee’s positive health benefits, the NCA maintained that the good brought by drinking coffee far outweighs potential harm.

The judge found the evidence was not conclusive.

The 2010 lawsuit, filed by the non-profit Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT), named 90 coffee retailers. It is one of more than 16,000 Prop 65 lawsuits tallied by Lawsuit Abuse, a group that tracks plaintiffs who make a profession of targeting businesses likely to settle regardless of merit.

That fight is not over. The industry is considering an appeal that must be filed by April 10 and further legal action. But two judicial setbacks make it prudent for the coffee industry to comply.

Caution is not inherently bad; acrylamide is classified as a Group 2A carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. In animal trials, in high concentrations, it is known to cause cancer. But the harm it brings might best be viewed along a scale from the provably benign, like water, to the provably harmful, such as cigarettes. On this a scale ingesting minute traces of acrylamide in a cup of coffee several times a day, is much closer to water than the risk of smoking a pack a day of “death sticks.”

Ironically this ruling follows findings that coffee is not just safe, but good for your health.

Everyone hears about the negative effects of coffee but science, including a careful analysis of 220 existing coffee studies, suggests that drinking up to four cups a day bestows substantial health benefits.

The US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee finds solid evidence that coffee is healthy, and recommends drinking up to five cups a day without sugar and cream.

Coffee drinkers were less at risk of liver disease, diabetes, dementia and some cancers and were less likely to die from a stroke. In fact, those drinking three to four cups a day had a 17 percent reduced chance of death from all causes. Benefits are not universal, pregnant women as a group are discouraged from consuming coffee, “but non-pregnant adults can safely have up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day.”

During the past decade, Michael Edwards at DIG Insights has overseen the National Coffee Drinking Trends report, a large consumer research survey fielded annually since 1950 by the National Coffee Association. In a web presentation last week Edwards pointed to a concern that he admitted he can’t describe precisely.

In 2018 the NCDT added questions around coffee and disease prevention. “Sixty-nine percent of Americans aged 18+ claim to not have heard any health studies linking coffee to reduced risks of certain illness,” he observed.

“The negative perceptions of coffee appear to be softening, perhaps because of the overall strength of the coffee category,” he said, but Millennials and GenX coffee drinkers remain wary.

Call it a consumer uneasiness, he said. One reason these respondents frequently cite (46 percent) for not drinking more coffee is caffeine. So “why not decaf?” asks Edwards. Twenty-one percent view coffee as unhealthy. They worry about developing a coffee habit and express concerns about chemicals.

“They should be more carefree,” he said. “I suspect some concerns about what is in the coffee manifests itself as concern about caffeine, but I think it is something more,” he said.

Given that so many studies support coffee as a healthy beverage, “this represents a large opportunity for the industry overall, to bolster communications about coffee and health.”

The tea industry long ago discovered the importance of communicating tea’s health properties and guards with vigor its association with good health. The example of coffee is a reminder of why this investment remains worthwhile.

To learn more: Prop. 65 Percolates: What You Need to Know

Sources: NCA, USDA,