California’s long-brewing battle to label coffee as a cancer risk

Major health organization had moved coffee off possible cancer risk list, said it may even bolster health.

Coffee lovers alarmed by recent news that coffee shops and vendors in California will be required to label their lattes, espressos and regular cups of joe as a cancer risk can breathe a sigh of relief (kind of). Despite a few startling headlines, the grounds for labeling coffee as a cancer risk are weaker than you might think.

Here’s more of the inside scoop on this long-brewing legal battle.

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The call for labeling coffee as a cancer risk reflects a judge’s conclusion that coffee producers and vendors were unable to show that the benefits of drinking coffee outweigh the risks. It is not the result of any new research-based findings, nor does it reflect new recommendations from any major health organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO).

In 1991, the WHO said coffee might cause cancer, but that finding was based on studies that provided “limited evidence.” In 2016, WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said coffee is unlikely to cause cancer, unless it’s very hot (150 degrees, or almost too hot to drink).

The agency then removed coffee from WHO’s “possible carcinogen” list. The group also noted that a number of studies have shown drinking coffee may, in fact, reduce the risk for some cancers.

Various health resources and research studies point to the potential health benefits from drinking coffee. For example, one study linked drinking coffee to a lower risk of developing multiple sclerosis.  Caffeine is a stimulant, so a “drink in moderation” approach makes sense.

Overall, is coffee good for us or bad for us? The answer is probably somewhere in between, according to John T. Hamm, M.D., medical oncologist with Norton Cancer Institute.

“In medicine and cancer care, we rely on evidence-based information to guide our thinking and determine standards of practice,” Dr. Hamm said. “A key factor for our patients and families in being able to make informed decisions is knowing the information you’re getting is trustworthy and comes from a credible source.”


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