Is Coffee Really Linked to an Increased Cancer Risk?

Trouble may be brewing for coffee lovers, especially those who live in California, where a judge recently ruled that sellers must have warnings about cancer risks on all coffee products sold. But how frightened should we really be about enjoying a cup or two of Joe each day before work? Most experts and the bulk of the research says we should be aware but not frightened by coffee’s cancer link.

“Scientific concerns about coffee have eased in recent years, and many studies even suggest it can help health. ‘At the minimum, coffee is neutral. If anything, there is fairly good evidence of the benefit of coffee on cancer,’ said Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health. CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus, director of the Westside Cancer Center at USC, says he believes it is too early to put this kind of blanket warning on coffee. ‘When you put a bold declaration that ‘X may cause cancer’ when there isn’t data to that effect in humans, to me it causes panic rather than informed knowledge’ (CBS News).

Health Benefits of Coffee

For several decades now we have heard that aside from small issues with things like blood pressure, indigestion, and cardiovascular issues with extreme consumption, coffee has been touted as a healthy beverage choice. In fact, a November 2015 study in Circulation found that coffee consumption was associated with an 8% to 15% reduction in the risk of death (with larger reductions among those with higher coffee consumption). Other studies have found that coffee drinkers may have a reduced risk of

  • type 2 diabetes
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • uterine and liver disease
  • cirrhosis and IBS
  • gout
  • arthritis

The reason that coffee drinking might be beneficial is unknown and research is still being done to determine what about cancer is presenting these health benefits. But like all things in nature there is always an opposite side to the picture. There are some studies that have linked excessive coffee consumption with an increased risk for certain cancers. This is putting coffee shops, growers, and anyone else who profits from or enjoys coffee in an odd position.

Cancer is a scary word and present a very real risk for many every single year. Cancer occurs when an abnormal cell in the body begins to replicate at a rate outside of the body’s control. It can happen in any part of the body where cells divide (for example, lung, breast, liver, rectum), and eventually spreads to other areas of the body. The risk of developing cancer may be genetic or may be triggered by external environmental factors. Prescription medications are external factors that may contribute to the development of cancer.


Possible Health Risks Associated With Coffee

In a June 2016 report, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially lifted coffee from the list of potentially carcinogenic foods. It went on to designate coffee as potentially protective against cancer of the uterus and liver. And the WHO is not the only organization to include coffee in its list of foods that are probably harmless and possibly healthy. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (commissioned by the secretaries of the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture) thoroughly reviewed the evidence and declared that “moderate coffee consumption (three to five cups per day) can be incorporated into a healthy dietary pattern…” And the World Cancer Research Fund International concluded that coffee consumption was linked with a lower risk of several types of cancer. Some studies however have linked coffee consumption to health problems, including:

  • Bladder and pancreatic cancer.Studies more than 30 years old were found to suggested a potential link between heavy daily coffee consumption and the development of bladder and pancreas cancer among others potentially. Since then, better research has largely refuted these concerns but there always remains a risk for those who are predisposed to problems with these organs.
  • Esophageal cancer.In its recently released report, the WHO has raised concerns that drinking beverages at a temperature of over 150° F may increase the risk of esophageal cancer. However, this is not unique to coffee and there are many other hot drinks that can present just as much a risk due to the temperature at which it is consumed.
  • Cardiovascular disease.Studies have long been touted that link coffee consumption to cardiovascular disease. The thing most of these studies fail to note is that the amount of coffee needed to reach these damaging levels amount to more than 5-6 cups a day.
  • Bothersome, minor, side effects.The caffeine in coffee is one of the biggest concerns for most people as it can be easy to cross the line from getting an energy boots and going too far with the caffeine consumption. Too much can impair sleep, cause a jittery feeling, make anxiety worse, induce heartburn, cause frequent urination, and palpitations are problematic. Most of these are temporary and fade once the caffeine is out of the body and usually do not cause server or lasting problems.


Recent Changes

“Since 1986, businesses have been required to post warnings about chemicals known to cause cancer or other health risks – more than 900 substances are on the state’s list today – but what’s a “significant” risk is arguable. Coffee sellers and other defendants in the lawsuit that spurred Thursday’s ruling have a couple weeks to challenge it or appeal. The law “has potential to do much more harm than good to public health,” by confusing people into thinking risks from something like coffee are similar to those from smoking, Giovannucci said” (CBS News).

This new law is causing debate and is forcing many to rethink issues regarding product labeling, nutritional information, cancer risk warnings, and where the line should be drawn in terms of government involvement. Time will tell where this all leads and what new issues and problems this may present. Some worry about an increase in liability lawsuits and consumers looking for compensation for the health effects of their coffee habits.