Anything, it seems, can cause cancer, or at least the risk is high enough that somebody feels a need to write a warning label. Sugar, alcohol, smartphones — if it exists, and a lot of people use it, there is somebody insisting it might cause cancer. And so here we are, yet again, with coffee, as a California judge has ordered every coffee company in the state — including Starbucks, which was named in a lawsuit — to post a warning about the potential risk of cancer from drinking coffee.
Yet the decision doesn’t have anything to do with medical evidence but, instead, an overly cautious law. So, what are the real risks?
- The judge hasn’t ruled coffee gives you cancer: Instead, he ruled that Starbucks and other companies were out of compliance with the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, which states businesses need to give a clear warning to consumers about potential risks to their health when certain chemicals are present. That includes the chemical at issue, acrylamide.
- Acrylamide is some fairly nasty stuff, in extremely large doses: If you keep and store it in any large quantity, you’re subject to strict reporting requirements, as the government views barrels of the stuff as an extremely dangerous substance. It’s an industrial chemical and in most cases, you’d only ever hear of the stuff if you worked in some very specific places, like a wastewater treatment plant. Oh, and of course this stuff turns up in cigarette smoke.
- But in 2002, it was discovered that very small amounts of this stuff turns up in our food when we cook it: Originally, a scientist uncovered it in starchy foods. But it turns out it might be a side effect of the cooking process; it’s been found in dried fruits, olives, and, of course, coffee. But we’re not talking about a lot of this stuff, as you might have guessed since you haven’t fallen over dead over your fries. The American Cancer Society notes that lab animals get 1,000 to 10,000 times the amount of this stuff you would ever consume from foods. In short, to be outright, immediately dangerous something has to have gone horror-movie-level wrong.
- The main question for scientists is the long-term risk: It’s not clear that animal studies apply to humans in this scenario, and most authorities warn that the research is still unclear. Doctors tend to take the better safe than sorry approach, thanks to that whole “first do no harm” thing, and some tilt more towards the skeptical than others. The short answer is, there’s no consensus, we’re not entirely sure, so basically here’s all the shrug emoji.
Ironically, studies have found that actual coffee has less of this stuff than instant coffee or coffee substitutes. Remember, it’s all to do with the roasting. The less roasting there is, the less of this chemical there is. And frankly, it’s worth remembering it’s not the chemical itself, it’s the dosage. You can inhale a surprisingly high amount of horribly dangerous stuff before you have any notable problems, short or long-term. So if you’re really worried about this, but can’t go without your morning coffee, switch to the blonde roast.