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March 30, 2018

Can Starbucks cause cancer? Judge rules coffee should come with a warning

Cancer Lawsuits
Stock_Carroll - Starbucks Coffee Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

The Starbucks coffeeshop on North 20th Street in Philadelphia.

A judge in California ruled that Starbucks and other coffee sellers should print cancer warnings for consumers of their product.

Why? It turns out the bean roasting process creates a chemical called acrylamide, a known carcinogen also common in tobacco smoke.

Coffee isn’t the only product that risks exposure to acrylamide; potato chips and fries are other noted acrylamide carriers. In fact, potato chip makers faced a similar lawsuit in 2008 that ordered for the removal of acrylamide or the posting of a warning label, according to a report from the Associated Press.

The Council for Education and Research on Toxics wanted the same from the coffee industry, which was led by Starbucks Corp. in the lawsuit. Starbucks insisted that the level of acrylamide in the coffee isn’t harmful and any risks are outweighed by coffee's health benefits.

The Los Angeles judge, Elihu Burle, was not convinced.

“While the plaintiff offered evidence that consumption of coffee increases the risk of harm… defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving…that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health,” Burle said in his ruling.

In 1986, California passed a law, Proposition 65, requiring warning labels for about 900 chemicals linked to cancer or birth defects. The controversial law gave grounds for the lawsuit against Starbucks.

The health debate surrounding coffee is still muddled, however. Some recent studies have pointed to the health benefits of the caffeinated drink, including a 2017 Harvard report that linked coffee to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and other health dangers, and in 2016, the World Health Organization removed coffee from its “possible carcinogen” list.

Another point of debate in the trial was whether the chemical could be removed from coffee without ruining taste. If the ruling stands, there’s a chance the large financial penalties would begin to affect coffee sellers -- and consumers -- in other states.