​Strange Brew: Does Coffee Cause Cancer?

We love coffee. Does it love you?

In New York City, the Health Department makes restaurants display cleanliness and safety grades in their windows; anything less than an "A" is usually mounted behind a potted fern or hung near ground level. Visiting San Francisco last March, I noticed something similar when I bought my afternoon latte at a Starbucks. Tucked behind the half 'n' half jug and napkin dispensers was a 4x6 inch notification that acrylamide, a chemical byproduct of the roasting process, may cause cancer.

This assertion isn't new. A number of years ago, my husband pushed his morning cup away after a bout of insomnia led him to watch anti-coffee crusader and New Age nutritionist Gary Null preach it's evils on the 2 am segment of a PBS fund drive. While I scoffed at the notion that a drink consumed by millions over centuries was essentially poison, this latest alert, ordered by a judge in California, a state which tends to be on the cutting edge of of regulating toxins, made me wonder.

The warning labels on coffee stem from Prop 65, an 1986 law that that requires companies to inform consumers if their products contain potentially hazardous chemicals. Since California's economy is so far-reaching, the law has had a positive impact on people across the country. It's pushed manufacturers to remove substances like lead and formaldehyde from their formulas. But, according to Nathan A. Schachtman, a product liability defense lawyer and a Columbia Law School lecturer, it's also created "a cottage industry of lawyers roaming around looking for violators."

Recently, California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) recommended that coffee be exempt from the law because the health risks have been overblown. While acrylamide does cause an increase in tumors in rodents who are fed high doses, the agency says that the minuscule amount found in a cup of coffee poses no health risks to humans and that the antioxidants and micro-nutrients in coffee may even be good for you. (FYI: According the the FDA, acrylamide is also found in higher levels in french fries, prunes, some cereals and breads, toasted nuts, and canned olives). A public hearing on the issue was held on Thursday, August 16. Sixty-four percent of American adults drink coffee every morning—can we all breathe a collective sigh of relief?

According to the American Cancer Society, "Coffee drinking is associated with a lower risk of dying from all causes of death." They add the caveat that an international study investigating the link between coffee and cancer said the results were "unclear." However, the same researchers found that drinking coffee was "not a cause of female breast, pancreas, and prostate cancers, [and] may reduce the risk of uterine endometrium and liver cancers." They also noted that drinking coffee is associated with a lower risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. In 2016, the World Health Organization took coffee off it's list of possible carcinogens.

The real risk in drinking coffee is overdoing the caffeine. People with anxiety disorders and those who take certain medications may be advised against drinking coffee by their physicians. Teenagers and pregnant women shouldn't drink more than one cup a day. More than 400 mg of caffeine a day, the amount in four average cups of brewed coffee, can cause stomach aches, irritability, insomnia, tremors, headaches, and other unpleasant side effects. For the rest of us who aren't guzzling buckets of cold brew or making hourly forays to the office percolator, it's fine to continue drinking coffee.

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