Official Partner The Royal Society of Medicine


On Coffee

From our Lead Surgical Contributor, Dr. Paul Sturch.

All coffee sold in California must now carry a cancer warning. Seriously. Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle has ruled that coffee sellers in the Golden State failed to warn customers of the potentially carcinogenic compound acrylamide being sold in their coffee. So. Bad news for all teachers and anaesthetists, then.

The ‘Legal’ Bit

Since 1986 under the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, also known as Proposition 65, businesses must provide a “clear and reasonable warning” about the presence of agents that affect health. The original lawsuit was filled in 2010 by the nonprofit Council for Education and Research on Toxics and alleges that the defendants “failed to provide clear and reasonable warning” that drinking coffee could expose people to acrylamide. Companies targeted include Starbucks and 7-eleven. The non-profit says sellers should pay fines of up to $2,500 (£1,800) for every person exposed to acrylamide in California since 2002. Many companies have already settled and agreed to sell their coffee with Prop 65 warning labels.

The list of chemicals “known to the State of California to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity” is updated annually and currently numbers almost 1000.  A chemical needs only to carry a risk of 1 in 100,000 to be considered a significant risk. Bill Murray, the National Coffee Association’s president and CEO, said in a statement, “Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage. The US Government’s own Dietary Guidelines state that it can be part of a healthy lifestyle.” The ruling states that companies have failed to shows that “consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health”.


The American Cancer Society reports that Prop 65 labeling has limitations: “They don’t say what the substance is, where it is in the product, how you might be exposed to it, what the level of risk is, or how to reduce your exposure.” They report that when rats and mice are given very high amounts – 1000 to 10,000 higher than the levels to which human beings might be exposed in foods – the incidence of cancer does increase. So maybe we don’t need to panic quite yet.

Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta  “Most experts are going to look at the risk of acrylamide in coffee and conclude that this is not something that’s going to have a meaningful impact on human health,”

Coffee was removed from the World Health Organisation (WHO) list of possible carcinogens in 2016.


There are two important coffee plants, Arabica and Robusta. Coffee beans are actually the seeds of the cherries grown on these plants. Once harvested, seeds are removed from the flesh of the cherry and dried. The dried seeds are then roasted.

As the beans heat up, the complex carbohydrates break down and the bean turns brown through the process of the Maillard reaction.  The oils, or caffeol, are released, creating the aroma and flavor of the coffee. Acrylamide is released as a by-product of the ‘cooking’. You can produce acrylamide by burning toast, too. Looks like breakfast is off the cards en général, then.

At least wine is still allowed, right?


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