Health & Wellness

Does coffee cause cancer?

Enjoy your Starbucks grande latte with skim. Just don't ask for it extra hot.

There’s not enough evidence to say whether coffee might cause cancer or protect against it, a global body of cancer experts said Thursday.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) stepped down its classification of coffee as a possible cause of cancer, and says its fresh review of the evidence shows it’s not clear whether it does or not.

But very, very hot drinks might, the IARC, part of the World Health Organization, said.

“Coffee is not classifiable as to carcinogenicity,” said Dana Loomis, an expert on disease patterns at the University of Nebraska Medical Center who led the study committee.

The team went through more than 1,000 studies done from the 1970s to this year and could reach no conclusion “either that it is safe or that it is dangerous,” Loomis told reporters on a telephone briefing.

But there’s good news for women.

“More than 40 cohort and case-control studies and a meta-analysis including nearly 1 million women consistently indicated either no association or a modest inverse association for cancer of the female breast and coffee drinking,” the team wrote.

It’s the first time IARC has looked at coffee since it said in 1991 that coffee was a possible cause of cancer, based on some studies linking coffee drinking with bladder cancer.

“The Working Group concluded that positive associations reported in some studies could have been due to inadequate control for tobacco smoking, which can be strongly associated with heavy coffee drinking,” IARC said in a statement.

But evidence from groups,mostly in South America, who drink very hot mate, a popular drink, shows that extremely hot drinks -- 150 degrees F or hotter -- just might be linked with cancer, the group said.

What about American coffee?

The Specialty Coffee Association of America recommends coffee to be brewed at 200 degrees Fahrenheit and there are numerous complaints about chain store coffee being served too hot. The most famous case involved McDonald's, who was sued almost 25 years ago because its coffee scalded a woman's lap. At the time, McDonald's said it served its coffee between 180 and 190 degrees, although it declines to say how hot its brew is served now. Starbucks has faced lawsuits over its scalding hot tea.

Reuters
If you want a less hot beverage at Starbucks, you can order it at a kid's temperature.

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Overall, Americans prefer not-so-hot coffee, which it turns out, is good.

“The Working Group noted that the epidemiological evidence for very hot beverages and human cancer has strengthened over time,” it noted.

Extremely hot drinks might damage the cells in the esophagus enough to sometimes cause cancer, the group said.

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IARC issues very broad classifications of definite, probable and possible cancer-causing agents. Their reports don’t say how much something might raise the risk of cancer, so unless they are read carefully, it can be easy to confuse a very high risk — such as smoking — with a very low risk.

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The team doesn't do direct research but reviews the quality and quantity of existing evidence. The classifications are not necessarily meant for the general public but are meant to guide policymakers.

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