Kyle Motola takes a sip of coffee Friday at Coffee By Design in Portland. In California, a judge ruled that coffee companies must provide warnings to customers that roasted beans contain carcinogens. Motola said such warnings wouldn’t deter him from drinking coffee, but “it certainly gives you something to think about.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

At least in Portland’s java shops, the cup doesn’t runneth over with concerns about cancer.

Local coffee roasters and coffee shop owners say they were flooded with texts and emails Friday morning from people wondering how they might be affected by a California court’s opinion that coffee should be labeled as a potential health hazard.

A California judge said in a preliminary decision Wednesday that coffee sellers in that state should have to post warnings through signs or labeling, letting customers know that a chemical produced during the roasting process may cause cancer.

The defendants, about 90 coffee sellers including Starbucks, have until April 10 to file objections.

“I assume they want to know that they can still drink coffee,” Will Pratt, co-owner of Tandem Coffee Roasters in Portland, said of the messages he was receiving from customers. “I think they want some reassurance.”

Mary Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Coffee By Design, said she was hearing “from people I haven’t heard from in ages.”

“People are scared,” she said. “I think it’s so misleading for consumers. We feel very strongly that there is no health concern. Numerous studies by the World Health Organization on coffee have shown that, not only is it not bad for your health, it’s actually good for your health.”

At issue is acrylamide, a chemical that is produced when sugars in some starchy foods are browned at high temperatures and react with a naturally occurring amino acid in the food. According to the American Cancer Society, acrylamide is mainly found in plant foods, such as potato products, grain products and coffee.

“This chemical occurs in anything that undergoes the Maillard reaction, so it’s already in a lot of other foods you eat, and it’s a pretty low amount in coffee,” Pratt said.

A group called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics brought the issue to court, trying to pressure the coffee industry to remove acrylamide from its products or warn about its potential dangers.

The council succeeded in getting the chemical out of potato chips.

But the coffee industry is fighting back, insisting that coffee is not only safe, but good for you. Lindemann said she and others in the industry are concerned that the case is taking a single chemical out of context, not considering how it interacts with other substances in the coffee.

Matt Bolinder, owner of the Speckled Ax coffee shop in Portland, said he would probably stop drinking coffee himself if it were ever proven to be a serious health risk.

But there’s not enough proof yet that it is harmful to humans, he said, noting that the WHO has removed coffee from its list of carcinogens.

“We consume more of this stuff when we eat a slice of toast than we do when we drink a cup of coffee, from what I understand,” Bolinder said. “It definitely has not been proven to cause cancer in humans. If anything, coffee has been shown to have health benefits. It reduces the possibility of certain types of cancers.”

Raynor Large of Cumberland sits at Coffee By Design on Friday while talking to a reporter about a California judge’s ruling that coffee sellers must warn customers that roasted beans contain carcinogens. He said it probably won’t keep him from drinking coffee. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Local coffee shop owners said they want to learn more about the ruling before drawing too many conclusions, because without more information “it’s hard to really respond to it,” said Nick Mazuroski, co-owner of Rwanda Bean Co. and Black Cat Coffee in Portland.

“It’s definitely a concern as a business owner and a consumer myself who drinks coffee regularly,” he said. “It’s certainly something we take really seriously, and we will dig deeper into the rationale and the science behind it.”

Pratt said he is “still digesting” the news and is trying to learn as much as he can about the issue, so he can inform customers at Tandem Coffee Roasters who ask about it. But he doesn’t think this will keep people from enjoying their morning latte.

Pratt once lived in California, and he said signs like the ones ordered for coffee “are everywhere” there, warning consumers about many products. It’s disheartening, he said, “Like, gee, everything I do is giving me cancer.”

Bill Kryst, a University of New England graduate student who was just finishing his black coffee at Coffee By Design on Friday afternoon, said the ruling would probably not keep him from his daily cup.

“That sounds like a silly California thing,” he said. “Everything is a cancer in California.”

Kryst noted that people still smoke cigarettes – “which are way worse” – even though packs of cigarettes have warning labels on them.

Raynor Large of Cumberland, drinking a cold brew Friday afternoon at Coffee By Design, said he wants to learn more about the issue, but said it would “probably not” stop him from drinking coffee.

Large said he usually has a cup of coffee every other day, but now that he has an 8-week old baby at home, his coffee consumption has “just increased rather dramatically.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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