For coffee drinkers in California, health warnings on their morning fix will soon be commonplace. Earlier this month, a legal battle involving Starbucks and the Brad Barry Company was brought to a close. Unfortunately, coffee regulation in California is the latest example of pseudoscience influencing public policy.
Does It Actually Cause Cancer?
The Council for Education and Research on Toxics accused these companies of violating Proposition 65, which requires warning labels for all known health risks. Coffee contains the chemical acrylamide, a carcinogen. Acrylamide naturally occurs during the roasting process and is present in coffee.
While multiple national and international agencies have listed acrylamide as a potential carcinogen, the National Cancer Institute is less certain. In their overview of the existing studies, they found that acrylamide has been found to cause mutations in rodents. However, humans and rodents process acrylamide differently, and as a result, there are no studies that suggest acrylamide has the same impact on humans.
Even the overconsumption of water is deadly. This does not mean water is a dangerous substance.
One organization that previously listed acrylamide as a carcinogen was the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is a subcomponent of the World Health Organization (WHO). The last study to list acrylamide as a carcinogen was conducted in 1994 before it was even known that acrylamide was found in foods. While the IARC has lowered the classification of acrylamide, it is still unwilling to lower its status due to the inability to be certain that it is completely safe. This is because demonstrating harm is relatively easy compared to demonstrating that a substance is safe. Even so, there is still not sufficient evidence that acrylamide is harmful to humans.
The IARC operates under the assumption that a substance is either carcinogenic or not. In the case of acrylamide, the fact that the animal studies used exposure levels far beyond what could be expected from a morning cup of coffee is not considered. Different levels of substances are crucial when determining the health risks. For example, even the overconsumption of water is deadly. This does not mean water is a dangerous substance.
Pseudo-Science and the Burden of Proof
In order to win, Starbucks and Brad Barry would have had to demonstrate that their product had sufficient health benefits that would justify a level of acrylamide. In addition, they would need to demonstrate a “scientifically valid quantitative risk assessment” that concluded their proposed levels of acrylamide were safe. While the defendants were burdened with the task of proving the safety of coffee, the plaintiff was able to rest on virtually nonexistent evidence that coffee poses serious health risks.
The defendants lost as a result of their inability to prove their product was safe. This should not be construed as meaning there is evidence showing harm.
Despite claims by organizations like the IARC to “disseminate scientific information,” they do not hold themselves to the scientific standards. After the release of a 2015 report on glyphosate, the IARC’s methods have been highly criticized. The published report categorized glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen.” This conclusion was surprising since other agencies such as the EPA and WHO had done assessments of glyphosate and none of them had found it to be harmful. After investigating, Reuters discovered that any study that found glyphosate to be safe was edited out of the IARC’s report. However, when pressed for information, the IARC would not disclose the reasoning behind the edits.
The problem with organizations such as the IARC claiming scientific expertise is that their pseudo-scientific studies are not held to the same standards as any other reports. However, this does not prevent them from impacting policies. These policies are perceived to be rooted in science and in the defense of public safety. In reality, they are based on contentious studies and a lack of scientific consensus. In the case of labeling coffee in California, the defendants lost as a result of their inability to prove their product was safe. This should not be construed as meaning there is evidence showing harm.