Cancer Warning on Coffee Now? Is It Really Needed?

There’s a chemical in coffee that has been linked to cancer. But should you be worried?

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Can coffee cause cancer?
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Study says coffee is bad for you. Study says coffee is good for you. Now, court says coffee can cause cancer?

There have been an array of opinions on coffee over the years. The latest comes as a court in California, United States, ruled that coffee sellers across the state have to carry a cancer warning label. This is due to a chemical present in coffee called acrylamide which has been previously linked to cancer. It’s produced when coffee beans are roasted.

Sounds scary, right? Well, health experts say you shouldn’t be that worried. Here’s why.

What’s The Contention With Coffee?

California keeps a list of chemicals that can possibly cause cancer and acrylamide was added to it in 1990.

The chemical acrylamide is produced when coffee beans are roasted.
The chemical acrylamide is produced when coffee beans are roasted.
(Photo: iStock)

Eight years ago, a non-profit filed a lawsuit against coffee companies over this chemical’s presence in coffee.

The suit asked companies that make or sell coffee to either remove the chemical from its processing or carry a label to warn customers of the possible health risk.

Interestingly, potato chip makers did the former when the non-profit sued them as well for the same chemical years ago.

Acrylamide is created when starchy foods are roasted, baked, toasted or fried. So, traces of it can be found in potato chips, cookies, cereal, toasted bread and other high-carbohydrate foods. It’s not an additive, it forms naturally during the cooking process.
Acrylamide can also be found in foods like potato chips and toasted bread.
Acrylamide can also be found in foods like potato chips and toasted bread.
(Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

The coffee industry, led by Starbucks Corp, said the level of the chemical in coffee is safe and any risks are outweighed by benefits. The court ruled against them since they failed to offer proof that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.

Health Experts Say It’s Not a Big Deal

William Murray, President and CEO of National Coffee Association (US), has said that the presence of acrylamide in coffee “is not in doubt” but stressed that the levels “are minuscule.”

Scientists and health experts agree and are largely of the opinion that there is not much credible evidence to warrant such a move.

Coffee is one beverage that has been studied extensively by experts. And in the recent years, concerns over coffee have eased, with many studies saying it can even offer health benefits.

Excess coffee intake should be avoided.
Excess coffee intake should be avoided.
(Photo: iStock)
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) cancer branch concluded in 2016 that coffee doesn’t cause cancer. The same agency classified acrylamide as carcinogenic.

However, it added that drinking very hot beverages can be cancerous as it burns the esophagus. There was no relation to any chemicals, just the hot nature of the beverages.

The Associated Press (AP) quoted Dr Edward Giovannucci, a nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health as saying:

At the minimum, coffee is neutral. If anything, there is fairly good evidence of the benefit of coffee on cancer.

The study which linked the chemical acrylamide to cancer was done on animals, by giving them high levels of acrylamide in drinking water. But people and rodents absorb the chemical at different rates and metabolise it differently, so its relevance to human health is unknown.

So, no one knows what levels are safe or risky for people.

Food and Drug Administration tests of acrylamide levels found they ranged from 175 to 351 parts per billion (a measure of concentration for a contaminant) for six brands of coffee tested.

Cancer Warning on Coffee Now? Is It Really Needed?
(GIF Courtesy: GIPHY)

Dr Bruce Y Lee of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health was quoted by AP as saying:

A cup of coffee a day, exposure probably is not that high. If you drink a lot of cups a day, this is one of the reasons you might consider cutting that down.

Bottom line is that if you like your coffee on and off, you should be absolutely fine. But excess of anything isn’t all that great. International guidelines say you shouldn’t have more than three cups of coffee a day. So it’s safe to say you should moderate your intake for a healthy lifestyle.

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