World Health Organization changes course on carcinogens in coffee

We’ve lived long enough to see science lose and gain favor with eggs, fats, red wine, some fruits and vegetables, and chocolate. Perhaps more confusing than studies around those food items are the studies surrounding coffee. Slate magazine noted in 2010 that there were more than 500 studies on coffee and human health.

Well, this senior is not human until I have that first cup of coffee in the morning. Both as a coffee drinker and a health writer, I’ve been following the coffee conundrum for three decades.

(And just for the record, an old-fashioned electric percolator makes better coffee than anything on the market today. We received one for a wedding present, and it’s long gone.)

In mid-June, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a press release with mixed messages. We’ll start with information directly from the source.

From Lyon, France, 15 June 2016 – Twenty-three scientists convened by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, evaluated the carcinogenicity of drinking coffee and very hot beverages. The press release stated, “The Working Group (scientists) found no conclusive evidence of a carcinogenic effect of drinking coffee. However, the experts did conclude that drinking scalding beverages (above 65 degrees Celsius or 149 Fahrenheit) probably causes cancer of the esophagus.

Christopher Wild, IARC director, said, “These results suggest that drinking very hot beverages is one probable cause of esophageal cancer and that it is the temperature, rather than the drinks themselves that appear to be responsible.” He added that smoking and drinking alcohol are also leading causes of this type of cancer; in many Asian, South American, and East African countries where people commonly drink very hot beverages, there is a high incidence of esophageal cancer.

In the United States, the National Coffee Association recommends coffee brewed at between 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal flavor. Most Americans drink coffee that is about 140 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s always a good idea to let it cool after brewing.

IARC scientists noted an “inverse relationship between drinking coffee and certain types of cancer.” The study said, remarkably, that the risk of developing liver cancer dropped by 15 percent for each cup of coffee drunk. Studies also suggest fewer incidents of breast cancer and endometrial or uterine cancer develop among coffee drinkers.

The organization steps back a bit with this caveat: other factors may be responsible for this data, and they do not consider coffee as a protectant against cancer.

This arm of WHO is the same group that in 1991 suggested coffee was possibly carcinogenic to the bladder. Another source reported that IARC’s Dana Loomis, deputy head of the organization, said: “We cannot say that it is completely safe because proving a negative is very difficult, but it has moved down a step regarding the hierarchy of concern.” The finding notes that it is “unclassifiable” as a risk because of (their words) “insufficient studies in humans.”

Researchers three and four decades ago found drinking coffee might increase the risk of heart problems and high blood pressure. More recent research negated those claims. Today the common research wisdom is that coffee may help fight heart disease, offer protection against certain cancers, and ease the effects of dementia.

While seniors are not specifically mentioned in this study, a recent National Institutes of Health white paper suggested, “Two early studies on both elderly and adult subjects found that caffeine improves attention span, psychomotor performance and cognitive function, as well as and feelings of well-being in the elderly. The elderly appeared more sensitive to the protective effects of caffeine on declining mental performance over time than the younger subject.”

Regardless of how we interpret the studies, Americans like coffee. The National Coffee Association reports we spent nearly $75 billion last year for our java. It is the most common beverage in America, supplanting tap water. Our global counterparts are joining the traditional coffee drinker of the U.S. and Europe. Coffee consumption has risen globally at a rate of 2.5 percent since 2011.

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