My day doesn’t start until I get my cup of coffee. So I was pretty pleased with some news out this morning from the World Health Organisation that downgraded its warning on a potential link between my favourite morning beverage and — yep, you guessed it — cancer.
Back in the early ’90s, coffee was classified as a possible cancer-causing agent, but a new study from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), helps clear its reputation. Sort of.
There’s another aspect of the report that’s not so positive: Instead of a link between coffee and cancer, researchers think they may have found a connection between hot beverages and the disease.
The study found evidence that drinking anything very hot — we’re talking about beverages sipped at roughly 149 degrees Fahrenheit or higher — is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” They found the strongest links between drinking hot beverages and esophageal cancer, or cancer of the food pipe.
While all of this sounds scary, there are two things about the findings that are important to keep in mind:
1. Esophageal cancer is not very common in the first place.
In fact, it makes up just about 1% of all cancers diagnosed in this country. The disease is much more common in Iran, northern China, India, and southern Africa. If you’re an American woman, your risk of developing this type of cancer in your lifetime is about 1 in 435. If you’re an American man, it’s significantly higher, but still fairly low, at about 1 in 125.
Several things can raise or lower your risk of developing esophageal cancer, from gender to diet, genetics, and behaviour. The American Cancer Society includes frequently drinking very hot liquids on its list of risk factors
for the squamous cell type of esophageal cancer, one of the most common types of the disease which starts in the flat cells that line the food pipe. “This might be the result of long-term damage the liquids do to the cells lining the esophagus,” says ACS.
2. The evidence of the link between this cancer and hot drinks is still very limited.
To get their results, the researchers pooled together studies looking at cancer of the esophagus in South America. The researchers concluded that the risk of developing esophageal cancer rose with how frequently people drank a popular type of hot tea, called mate. There was only one study looking at consumption of cold mate, and it found no cancer link there.
To make sure the links weren’t just mate-specific, the researchers took a look at some other studies examining the link between esophageal cancer and other hot beverages, like water, coffee, and tea. On the basis of these considerations and on the totality of the evidence, they concluded that drinking very hot beverages at above 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit) was “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
“There is limited evidence in human studies, and limited evidence in animal studies, for the carcinogenicity of very hot drinks,” IARC’s Dr. Dana Loomis told The Guardian.
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