Why Coffee Sold in California Could Soon Come With a Toxic Warning Label

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If you live in California, you may be accustomed to seeing signs warning of cancer-causing chemicals everywhere from cleaning supplies to Disneyland. These labels have been enforced by Proposition 65 since 1986, but until now coffee products have largely been successful in avoiding them. As Bloomberg reports, an ongoing lawsuit could soon make it so that the disclaimers appear on every cup of coffee people in California purchase. Some stores are already rolling out the warnings for coffee in anticipation of the legal crackdown.

Proposition 65 states that all products sold in California containing one or more of the substances from a list of 1000 harmful chemicals must bear a label warning it may "cause cancer, or birth defects, or other reproductive harm." Businesses that ignore this law face fines reaching up to thousands of dollars for each item sold without the proper labeling.

For years, major coffee distributors like Starbucks have skirted the toxic designation even though some lawyers say they're breaking the law by doing so. Because coffee has acrylamide, the chemical that's made when plant-based foods are cooked at high temperatures, the drink technically falls within the group of products that should carry the warning. Studies have shown that the compound is a carcinogen in rodents, and McDonald's and Frito Lay are already required to alert customers in the state to the acrylamide content in their fries and potato chips.

But while acrylamide is present in coffee, companies have argued for years that the actual beverage doesn't qualify for the label because many studies have dispelled the link between coffee drinking and cancer.

"We don't want to have to put a label that would be false speech and that isn't scientifically accurate," Joe DeRupo, a spokesman for the National Coffee Association, told Bloomberg.

But coffee's exemption from the rule could soon change. Since 2010, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics has been suing Starbucks and dozens of other companies for leaving the label off their coffee. The second phase of the trial is currently in progress and the judge is expected to make a decision by the end of 2017. Starbucks and a handful of other stores have already begun posting the warning as signs in their stores, perhaps as a way to protect themselves from the potential legal consequences.

If you're a California resident who sees those signs at your local coffee shop, or on your actual coffee in the near future, there's no need to panic. Despite naturally occurring traces of acrylamide, many studies suggest that the heart-healthy benefits of coffee could outweigh any negative effects. And while experts agree that drinking coffee with acrylamide doesn't cause cancer in humans, one study found a link between drinking very hot beverages and cancer of the esophagus. So if you want to make your morning routine a little healthier, wait for your java to cool down below 149°F before taking a sip. 

[h/t Bloomberg]