- California officially overturned its warning about a potential link between coffee and cancer risk on Monday.
- The state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment ruled that drinking coffee does “not pose a significant risk of cancer.”
- The chemical that regulators in California were previously warning about, acrylamide, is a known carcinogen. But the dose in a single cup of coffee is tiny.
- Researchers have evidence that coffee can help your health, since there are many chemicals in coffee with anti-cancer effects. Drinking coffee is linked to lower instances of cancers of the breast, uterus, prostate, liver, mouth, and throat.
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California coffee lovers, go ahead: keep on sipping.
The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) ruled on Monday that coffee isn’t connected to cancer in any meaningful way, despite what you may have heard. That means California coffee shops won’t be required to post a warning about carcinogenic chemicals in coffee cups.
“After reviewing more than a thousand studies, we concluded that coffee consumption does not pose a significant cancer risk,” Sam Delson, a spokesman for the OEHHA, told Business Insider.
Last year, a California judge ruled that coffee sellers in California had to post cancer warnings wherever they serve the brew, largely due to the presence of a chemical called acrylamide, which forms when food items (like coffee beans) are roasted.
“We found coffee is a complex mixture of numerous chemicals that includes both known carcinogens but also some anti-carcinogens that protect against cancer, including antioxidants,” Delson said.
That is largely the same conclusion that the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reached in 2016. That agency determined that there’s not enough evidence to make any kind of conclusion about a link between coffee and cancer. In fact, the IARC said some data suggests coffee may lower your risk of developing certain kinds of cancer, like uterine and liver cancers. What’s more, the agency said coffee is “unlikely” to cause breast, prostate, or pancreas cancers.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a similar stance last year, and said that a cancer warning for coffee drinkers “would be more likely to mislead consumers than to inform them.”
Coffee is a complex drink rich in antioxidants
The chemical that caused such a stir about a potential link between coffee and cancer – acrylamide – is produced any time ingredients are cooked at high heats (fried, baked, or roasted). That means acrylamide is also present in small doses in foods like french fries, baguettes, cookies, chips, and char-grilled items like marshmallows or sausages.
Acrylamide by itself is a known carcinogen. But the dose in coffee, which is tiny to the point of insignificance, doesn’t appear to be risky for people to drink. Plus, it’s paired with myriad other chemicals and nutrients in the brew.
Lots of evidence suggests drinking coffee can help people live long, caffeinated lives. One study followed half a million people in the UK for 10 years, and found that coffee drinkers there both lived longer and lowered their risk of early death by significant margins compared to people who didn’t consume coffee. Even coffee fiends who drank eight or more cups a day lowered their risk of death by about 14% compared to non-drinkers.
Similar large-scale studies linking coffee to longer lives have been repeated across the US and Europe. Coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in American diets (even though fruits and vegetables would provide a better cancer-fighting punch). Those antioxidants are known to help protect our bodies against the DNA damage that results in cancer.
Some of the past research on coffee drinkers’ poor health outcomes didn’t take into account the fact that many coffee drinkers were also smokers. (Smoking is responsible for more than 80% of all lung cancer cases, and lung cancer is the top cancer killer for both men and women.)
The benefits of drinking coffee
More recently, researchers have discovered that coffee drinkers may derive serious health benefits from the habit. These benefits include:
- Lower risk of death from all causes, and particularly from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
- Lower risk of liver disease (cirrhosis)
- Less dementia and better memory recall in older adults
- Better focus
- Reduced risk of depression and fewer instances of suicide
- Improved heart health
- Better teamwork and more positive feelings about contributions to group discussions
- Fewer arrhythmias for people with irregular heartbeats
However, even some researchers who have found evidence of coffee’s benefits for heart health caution that some people who have been diagnosed with cancerous tumours may want to limit their intake. That’s because drinking coffee can make blood vessels larger, and thus feed more oxygen to tumours. Additionally, people who drink a lot of coffee – more than six cups a day – can quicken their heartbeats (not to mention having a higher chance of feeling jittery and anxious).
Still, the evidence we have to date overwhelmingly supports the idea that drinking coffee is good for one’s health. So if you like drinking a lot, there’s no reason to change your ways.
If anything, this week’s California reversal can be seen as another reminder that the ways cancer works inside the body are complex and not yet fully understood.
It is rare – but not unheard of – for the OEHHA to reverse course on decisions like these, if compelling scientific evidence emerges that coffee may contribute to cancer. But given the data thus far, Delson considers that is “highly unlikely.”
“This is a unique situation because we’re dealing with a complex mixture of hundreds of chemicals,” he said. “You know, nothing is 100% risk-free, but … I’m a cancer survivor myself, and happy to drink coffee.”
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