Coffee on Trial: Should a Cup of Joe Carry a Cancer Warning?

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Big coffee is on trial in California. At issue is whether Starbucks (SBUX) and some of the biggest names in the coffee business will have to post warning labels that say coffee products could cause cancer.

A California legal and environmental activist group called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics filed a lawsuit under the state's Proposition 65, which mandates that products containing cancer-causing chemicals have warning labels. The chemical at issue is acrylamide, a byproduct of coffee bean roasting.

The lawsuit has been brewing in the courts for several years, with Starbucks joined by other coffee sellers, including Caribou Coffee, Seattle's Best Coffee, 7-Eleven, and Dunkin' Donuts (DNKN). As the trial got underway this month, Starbucks called experts who testified that there has been no proven link between coffee and cancer.

The council alleges the amount of acrylamide commonly found in a cup of coffee exceeds what California considers to be a safe amount. The Food and Drug Administration has said the risks of exposure to acrylamide in food are uncertain, but the agency has published a list of how much the carcinogen has been found in various foods.

The View from a Nutrition Professor

Stanley Omaye, a University of Nevada nutrition professor, told Chemistry World that the science in this case tilts toward the defense. "Based on the animal studies, you would have to drink probably over 100 cups of coffee a day in order to get to that dangerous dose, so it is totally absurd," he told the publication.

In addition, Chemistry World said the coffee companies have argued that the plaintiffs haven't really analyzed what happens to acrylamide in coffee and don't have any evidence that it can cause cancer when consumed in the drink. They also argue, the publication said, that numerous studies have shown that drinking coffee can actually help reduce the odds of developing of cancer.

Meanwhile, for those who still want their morning cup of coffee, a small cup is still free for another week at most McDonald's restaurants.
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