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About That Prop. 65 Warning Label

Since we have recently been inundated by questions about coffee and cancer risk, I thought I'd take a moment to share my thoughts on the controversy regarding coffee and California's Proposition 65. Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and remember, I am a coffee shill. The law requires businesses to notify consumers when their product contains a substance known to cause cancer or reproductive harm (a list of these substances is maintained and updated by the State of California).

The controversy started in 2010, when a nonprofit group called Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) filed a lawsuit against 90 coffee retailers, including Starbucks, claiming that they were in violation of California law by not disclosing the presence of acrylamide in their product.

What is acrylamide? It's a compound naturally created by the heating (especially at particularly hot temperatures) or processing of many foods, including coffee, bread, french fries and potato chips, dates, olives, dried pears, and baby teething biscuits, to name a few. In large doses, it is extremely hazardous.

However, a 2002 study by the UN and WHO concluded that the exposure level necessary for neuropathy in humans is 500 times average exposure, and the level necessary for fertility effects is 2000 times higher than average exposure.

The question is whether it can cause cancer at the dose naturally present in coffee. Last week, a judge determined that the coffee industry has not provided sufficient evidence that it does not, and therefore ruled that labeling is required.

Indeed, the evidence is confusing! The American Cancer Society has this to say: "It’s not yet clear if the levels of acrylamide in foods raise cancer risk."

And my bet is that labeling will happen, because the above-mentioned non-profit, CERT, successfully sued Burger King and McDonald's over the acrylamide in french fries a few years ago, and now those restaurants have to issue a warning in California. If McDonald's can't come up with contrary evidence, my bet is neither can Starbucks.

My personal feelings about this controversy are best summed up by Bill Murray (who doesn't look much like the one you're thinking of), President of the National Coffee Association. He told the Huffington Post that, "Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage. This lawsuit has made a mockery of Prop. 65, has confused consumers, and does nothing to improve public health."

It's not that I think there's nothing to worry about, but basically, I'm not concerned because of the preponderance of evidence that coffee is good for me. In 2016, the WHO removed coffee from its list of known carcinogens. Coffee consumption has been shown to reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease, liver disease and liver cancer, Type II Diabetes, and depression.

A 2017 study of 20,000 middle-aged Mediterraneans even found that drinking four cups of coffee per day reduced the risk of death from all causes by 64%.

As David Wheeler of CNN proposed in a recent op-ed, that would make a pretty good label, now wouldn't it?

- RL