Two well-known brands have already settled on a suit looking to raise awareness over the naturally-occurring but toxic chemical acrylamide.


Americans drink a lot of coffee: With one estimate saying the average coffee consumer slugs back about three cups per day. The good news is that, in general, science says all that joe is good for us. Recent studies have shown that coffee can cut mortality rates (multiple studies actually), reduce the risk of Multiple Sclerosis and benefit your liver. But no beverage is perfect (even too much water can kill you), and coffee producers openly admit that roasted beans contain acrylamide—a naturally occurring chemical that is also designated by the World Health Organization as "probably carcinogenic to humans." Global efforts have been underway to raise awareness about acrylamide—earlier this year, the UK even launched a campaign warning people not to burn their toast as darker toasting unleashes higher acrylamide levels. And now, if an advocacy group in California has its way, acrylamide warnings will be required to be printed on coffee products throughout the state.

coffee labels cancer
Credit: Sasha_Suzi / Getty Images

Originally filed by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics back in 2010, according to the Associated Press, the lawsuit claims that about 90 companies—from coffee giant Starbucks to smaller coffee-selling retailers – failed to follow a California law that requires warning signs when people face exposure to hazardous chemicals. The case has once again gained attention as lawyers for the coffee industry have begun providing their final defense against the lawsuit, claiming that acrylamide shouldn't require a warning because of an exemption in the California law for chemicals that occur naturally from necessary cooking.

"It is hard to imagine a product that could satisfy this exemption if coffee does not," James Schurz, an attorney for the defense, said in court papers according to the AP. "The answer to the question of whether Proposition 65 requires coffee to carry a cancer warning must be an emphatic 'No.'"

Potentially telling, however, is that two recognizable California chains have already settled on the suit. Both the gas station brand BP, which sells coffee in its convenience stores, and the donut chain Yum Yum, which operates around 70 stores, reportedly agreed to pay a fine and post warnings moving forward.

"The intent is not to scare people," Allan Hirsch, chief deputy of California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, was quoted as saying. "The intention is to help people make more informed decisions. If you continue to buy a product that will expose you to a chemical, that's OK as long as you're informed." Coffee cups already carry a warning that they are hot; pretty soon coffee companies may need to make rooms for one more.