FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb says he's "deeply concerned" that California is mandating cancer warnings on coffee. That's because there's essentially no scientific evidence that a daily coffee habit is bad for us, even though roasted coffee beans contain a cancer-causing chemical, acrylamide.
- Earlier this year, a California judge ordered coffee retailers in the state to post cancer warnings where their customers can see them.
- The FDA argues California's coffee warnings are misleading and unscientific, and they should be scrapped.
- We don't have any good evidence that coffee causes cancer. In fact, the opposite may be true.
- A growing body of evidence suggests there are serious benefits to drinking coffee, for our bodies, our brains, and even our colleagues.
The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) says no matter what California judges may think, the science is clear: drinking coffee won’t give you cancer.
Starbucks visitors in the Golden State, for example, will often see cancer warnings printed on store signs, placed out on the counter under the milk and sugar:
The question of whether to warn people about cancer and coffee hinges on the potentially harmful effects of a single chemical in roasted coffee beans called acrylamide.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb believes there's only one scientifically accurate answer to the chemical debate.
"Requiring a cancer warning on coffee, based on the presence of acrylamide, would be more likely to mislead consumers than to inform them,” he said in a statement posted on the FDA's website last week.
California's new coffee warnings are also being challenged by the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment because there's no solid scientific evidence that the amount of acrylamide present in coffee causes cancer. A final decision on the fate of the warnings should be in by the end of 2018, according to the Los Angeles Times.
We don't have any evidence acrylamide in coffee causes cancer
Acrylamide is present naturally in lots of toasty, roasted foods. The chemical compound is created when chips, bread, coffee, and cookies are cooked at high temperatures through processes like frying, baking, and roasting. It's true that in extremely high doses, acrylamide can lead to cancer in animals. But Gottlieb says "current science indicates that consuming coffee poses no significant risk of cancer."
"There is no evidence that acrylamide intake is related to cancer in humans," Frank Hu, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently told The Seattle Times.
This is in line with what a group of 23 other scientists determined back in 2016 at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, publishing their findings in the journal Lancet Oncology.
The ways that cancer develops in humans are complex and not fully understood. It's tough for scientists and oncologists to tease out direct cause-and-effect relationships when it comes to cancer, because (fortunately) humans don't live their lives in a lab, under a microscope.
People used to think coffee might contribute to higher cancer rates in part because researchers didn't take into account the fact that many coffee drinkers were also smokers. Small numbers of study participants and inconsistent findings also hampered previous research on coffee.
Once scientists started taking those factors into consideration, they realized there’s virtually no scientifically sound evidence to date that coffee can cause cancer.
Instead, researchers have discovered that coffee-drinkers may derive health benefits from their buzzy beverage of choice. The benefits of coffee drinking include:
- Lower risk of death
- Lower risk of liver disease (cirrhosis)
- Less dementia and better memory recall in older adults
- Better focus
- Reduced risk of depression and fewer instances of suicide
- Improved heart health
- Better teamwork, and even more positive feelings about contributions to group discussions
- Fewer arrhythmias for people with irregular heartbeats
- Additional research suggests drinking coffee may even lower your risk of developing certain kinds of cancer, such as endometrial (uterus), prostate, liver, mouth, throat, and breast cancer.
The benefits of coffee drinking aren't unlimited
Too much of a good thing can be a recipe for disaster. People who drink a lot of coffee, like more than six cups a day, can quicken their heartbeats (and be rather jittery colleagues, to boot).
Researchers also warn that people who have been diagnosed with tumors may want to limit coffee intake, because it can make blood vessels larger, and thus feed more oxygen into hungry tumors.
Finally, there is some evidence that drinking very hot coffee is not a good idea, and could contribute to esophageal cancer. But that has more to do with the searing hot temperature of the liquid than the brew itself. Oral cancer rates spike in people who drink beverages that are too warm, no matter what kind of boiling hot liquid they pour in their mouths. A cup of coffee isn't going to hurt you more than any other kind of steaming drink.
"If you're otherwise healthy, it will not harm you, and it might help your heart and circulatory system stay better functional for a longer time," Molecular biologist Joachim Altschmied recently told Business Insider. Altschmied published research in June suggesting that coffee might improve the way cells inside older blood vessels work, making them more youthful and possibly protecting cardiovascular cells into old age.
He says that four cups of strong coffee a day might be an ideal dose.
Research to date suggests that they have a hefty dose of science on their side, in spite of what California requires.