Earlier Wednesday, a California Superior Court judge issued a proposed ruling that’s bound to stress out lots of java drinkers—even if it probably shouldn’t. Companies like Starbucks will have to tell customers that their coffee can potentially cause cancer.
The case was first brought before the Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2010 by the nonprofit Council for Education and Research on Toxics. The plaintiffs claimed that since the process of roasting coffee beans produces a chemical called acrylamide, which is suspected of being carcinogenic, coffee-selling companies in the state were obliged to affix a warning label to their cup of joe. As of late, the plaintiffs had reached settlements with several defendants like 7-Eleven to include warnings, but others like Starbucks chose to fight it out in court.
California has long included acrylamide on its list of chemicals considered to cause cancer or reproductive health issues. The list was created as the result of the state’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, passed as Proposition 65 in 1986. Companies that sell products in California containing these ingredients are mandated to warn customers that they are linked to these health risks.
According to the AP, Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said in his decision he didn’t buy the defendants’ argument they were exempt from the law because the amounts of acrylamide in coffee are insignificant.
But while there’s evidence, mostly in animals, that acrylamide can be carcinogenic in high enough doses, that isn’t the case for coffee itself. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified acrylamide as a group 2A carcinogen in 2002, meaning they found it could probably cause cancer in people based on animal research. But 14 years later, they ruled that coffee and similar beverages weren’t cancer-causing. Elsewhere, other research has found coffee provides plenty of (relatively small) health benefits.
Aside from coffee roasting, acrylamide can be a byproduct of heating certain amino acids found in potatoes, making them a common trace chemical in things like french fries. But again, most research has suggested that we simply don’t get enough acrylamide in our diet to warrant any concern. And when it comes to common sources of the chemical, smoking provides a much heftier dose.
Still, it’s not the first time food companies have been forced to reckon with acrylamide in California. A decade ago, the state attorney general reached a settlement with several potato chip-selling companies like Lays and fast food chains like Wendy’s over allegations their products had high levels of the chemical. They agreed to pay fines and reduce the level of acrylamides in their products.
Though Berle may choose to reverse his ruling before he makes it final, California judges rarely do, according to the AP.