By Cathy Siegner

Dive Brief

Following a California judge’s ruling that cancer warnings apply to coffeesold in the state due to the presence of acrylamide, a report from the nonprofit Clean Label Project asserts many other food products contain the substance at higher levels. These include french fries and potato chips. The group also says it tested nine top-selling coffee brands and found that acrylamide levels were very low.

California law requires that consumers must be told if a product contains any probable carcinogens such as acrylamide — a byproduct of the coffee-roasting process. The judge’s ruling was in response to a 2010 complaint against more than 90 coffee producers and retailers — including Whole Foods, Target, Peet’s Coffee and Starbucks — claiming they had not followed the law and should be fined.

Defendants had until April 10 to file objections to the judge’s March 28 ruling. However, Bloomberg reported that some coffee retailers have already settled the case and now plan to post warning signs in their stores.

Dive Insight:

Acrylamide is a chemical that can naturally form in some kinds of food when it is cooked or fried at high temperatures. Changing packaging or sanitizing the food prep environment has no effect on formation of the chemical, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Acrylamide can be found in potatoes and CPG items such as crackers, bread, cookies and breakfast cereal, along with canned black olives and prune juice, according to CNN, and it does not appear on food labels. Acrylamide can also be found in tobacco smoke, which is responsible for more exposure to the chemical than food, the National Cancer Institute says.

News about chemicals in food is scary for consumers who naturally want to believe the foods and beverages they consume are safe. However, the mere presence of a chemical doesn’t mean food is unsafe. One cup of coffee tested by the Clean Label Project found an average of 1.77 micrograms per serving of acrylamide, while french fries from a top U.S. fast-food outlet had 75.65 micrograms. Coffee may be singled out for special attention because so many people drink it, but plenty of people eat french fries and potato chips as well.

Potato products are no stranger to scrutiny on acrylamide levels. In 2008, some big food companies — PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay, Heinz, Kettle Foods and Lance — said they would limit acrylamide levels in potato chips and french fries as part of a legal settlement with the California attorney general.

Acrylamide isn’t the only chemical receiving scrutiny in California for showing up in food. Glyphosate, which is commonly known as weed killer Roundup, has been found in trace amounts in many different items — often as an agricultural byproduct. Though there has been no consensus on whether the chemical is carcinogenic, the state requires it to be labeled as a cancer threat.

Consumer backlash tends to be more widespread for items found with glyphosate residue. When it is found, some manufacturers commit to reducing it immediately. Some class-action lawsuits about the chemical are brought but are not always successful. A case that accused General Mills’ Nature Valley granola brand’s claim to be “Made with 100% Natural Oats” was misleading because trace amounts of the chemical were found was dismissed last year. The judge ruled this argument was “simply not plausible.”

As the effort to reduce glyphosate residues tends to get more attention than acrylamide, manufacturers trying to cut back on acrylamide amounts can take a page out of their playbook. It may be time to consider an industry-wide effort to reduce or eliminate acrylamide in food, which would mean revamping how some products are processed, but it may help to reassure jittery consumers.

Acrylamide in food is getting more attention through the coffee litigation, as well as a lawsuit filed last year in California by the Center for Environmental Health over amounts of the chemical found in animal crackers. Manufacturers might be in trouble down the line if they don’t get out in front of today’s free-from consumer preferences and take proactive steps to change their operations.