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The Coffee-Cancer Paradox – CA Judge Ruling Not Backed by Evidence

May 15, 2018

Coffee-Cancer Paradox

| By Greg Luli |

How can something contain chemicals that can cause certain cancers be so good for you?

That’s the paradox James Coughlin, food chemistry and nutritional toxicology consultant, presented at this year’s SCA Re:co specialty coffee symposium in Seattle. And specifically addressed the latest ruling by a judge in favor of a plaintiff using Proposition 65 against the coffee industry.

As you probably have heard, a judge has ruled that the presence of acrylamide in coffee falls under Proposition 65 and must be included on a warning label on roasted coffee sold in California – no matter where its produced!  So if you produce roasted coffee in Italy, and want to sell it into California, you’ll have to provide special warning labels on those packages if this ruling stands.

Proposition 65 was typical of legislation in California – good intentions done badly. The idea that we should not only protect our environment, but also warn consumers when food might contain compounds that are harmful. Who can disagree with that? But remember, 30 percent of Californians voted against Prop 65. They knew what happens to good intentions when it comes to legislation and lawyers. The burden of proof gets placed on the industry to prove no harm.

So, how does this affect coffee businesses in California? According to NCA’s Bill Murry, “it is important to note that this is but one more step in a long legal process — one that is going to continue into the future. Retailers, and roasters, will have to decide if they are going to apply labels as the legal process continues. Coffee companies rely on packaging and visual cues to sell product, and a “cancer warning” — especially when coffee has been shown to help prevent some cancers — can only confuse coffee drinkers.” You can read his full recent interview here with Daily Coffee News.

So, does coffee really cause harm?

Well, as the paradox states – coffee has been shown in many studies to have the following health benefits:*

  1. Extends life – Harvard study of 208,000 men and women showed a decrease in early death due to a variety of diseases and suicide.
  2. Reduces the incidence of liver and endometrial cancers – No increase in breast cancer.
  3. High antioxidant content – Coffee is the highest source of polyphenols and other antioxidants in the western diet. A more healthy drink that wine or tea.
  4. Reduces heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some neurological disorders

And to make the paradox more confounding, coffee has NEVER been associated with any increase of ANY cancer in humans. In 1991 the IARC categorized coffee as “possibly carcinogenic”. But after years of review of over 1000 well-controlled cases, they made a very rare decision to reduce the classification of coffee to “unclassifiable” for carcinogenicity in humans. In other words, there is no clear data that supports coffee’s role in causing any cancers in humans.

But, coffee contains several chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer in animals (but not in humans):

1 – Acrylamide – produced by the Maillard reaction when sugars are heated in the presence of amino acids (proteins). This occurs in all cooked foods containing flour, such as bread, crackers, chips, etc. French fries are extremely high in acrylamide. Baby food also contains it. Roasted whole bean coffee contains up to 300 ppm. Whereas, brewed coffee contains only 10 ppm.

For reference, here is the level of acrylamide found in common foods:

  • Ghirardelli Unsweetened cocoa – 316
  • Planters Smoked Almonds – 339
  • Good Health Natural Foods Honey Dijon Mustard Potato Stix – 1168
  • Kellogg’s Raisin Bran – 156
  • General Mills Cheerios – 266
  • Lay’s Baked Original Potato chips – 1096
  • Garber Tender Harvest Organic Sweet Potatoes – 121

2 – Furfural – produced from heating sugars naturally found in all plant material, and shown to be carcinogenic in rats, mice, and hamsters.

3 – Methylimidazole – formed by the Maillard reaction when sugars are heated with amino acids and is commonly used in the caramel coloring in food and beverages.

So what’s going on here?  Perhaps the animal models used for determining cancer-causing compounds are not adequate when it comes to coffee? Coffee is a complex mixture of compounds that are both toxic and beneficial. Perhaps in humans, the beneficial ones win out? There are a number of yet-to-be-answered questions.

Unfortunately, it appears that CA Prop 65 has been misappropriated by a lawyer to enrich his reputation and bank account. And he is not going to stop at acrylamide. He is already laying the groundwork to address the other compounds mentioned above. Soon, warning labels on roasted coffee may become quite long, and unnecessarily frightening to consumers.

For coffee, this latest ruling has done nothing to protect consumers and instead may cause some to avoid a beverage that actually benefits their health and longevity.

Bottom line: Coffee is a healthy beverage with no link to cancer. Drink and enjoy.


*References: and references contained therein.

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Greg Luli

General Manager
An industrial microbiologist—both by education and for 30 years by trade—Greg is intrigued and challenged by the endless intricate nuances, methods and scientific knowledge needed to roast and brew specialty coffee. If he’s not outdoors hiking with his dogs, he can most certainly be found helping to perfect the roast levels of the newest coffee bean varieties to arrive.

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