Coffee Doesn’t Need Cancer Warning

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A pending lawsuit in California is suing for coffee to be labeled with a cancer warning. A favorable ruling would require coffee houses in California to warn their customers about potential cancer risk. The justification for this lawsuit is that acrylamide, which is found in roasted coffee beans, has been linked to cancer in rats.

On a “cancer worry” scale from 0 to 10, coffee should be solidly at 0 and smoking at 10; they should not have similar warning labels.

While well intended, this lawsuit is profoundly misguided. Relatively small amounts of acrylamide is common in many food items besides coffee. The levels that cause cancer in rats are much higher than those consumed through coffee and diet in general. The studies that have measured levels of acrylamide in the blood in humans, including in high coffee consumers, have shown no hint of increased cancer risk.

Coffee has hundreds of compounds with potential bioactive effects. Many of these have potentially beneficial effects, including anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidation and anti-cancer.

In epidemiological studies, higher consumers of coffee have been shown to have lower risk of a number of cancers. In fact, in an extensive review of the entire scientific evidence, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) concluded that drinking coffee probably reduces risk for endometrial and liver cancer. Coffee has also been shown to decrease risk of other cancers, such as prostate, oral cancers and colon cancer, though more research is required to determine if these are cause and effect associations. In addition, coffee reduces risk of diabetes, which increases risk of cancer and death.

There are hundreds of epidemiological studies on coffee and cancer and essentially none suggest increased cancer risk. On a “cancer worry” scale from 0 to 10, coffee should be solidly at 0 and smoking at 10; they should not have similar warning labels. Those who like drinking coffee should have no concerns at all, except perhaps, if they add too much sugar and cream or are very sensitive to the effects of caffeine.


    Author: Edward L. Giovannucci, MD, ScD

    Dr. Edward Giovannucci, is a professor in the departments of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and an associate professor in the department of medicine at the Harvard Medical School. Dr. Giovannucci is a current AICR grantee working on diet strategies that can prevent prostate cancer from progressing.

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