The science behind cancer warnings on coffee is murky at best

Californians will soon be taking their coffee with cream and a cancer warning, after a court ruled that the state’s retailers must label coffee as containing a carcinogen. The decision followed an eight-year legal battle, which boiled down to a question that has plagued coffee drinkers and scientists alike: Is drinking coffee healthy, or not?

The judge’s ruling, issued Wednesday, says that Starbucks and other coffee sellers failed to show that the health benefits of the brew, which include lowering heart disease, outweigh its cancer risk. But do the new warnings mean you should put your mug down? Here’s what we know — and don’t know — about coffee’s health effects, both good and bad.

What’s in coffee that has raised cancer concerns?

When coffee beans are roasted, the compound acrylamide is produced as a by-product. “Acrylamide is ubiquitous in our food chain. It’s a product of high heat and prolonged cooking, particularly with carbohydrates,” says Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. It’s found in fried potatoes, for example, as well as in cigarette smoke and some products such as adhesives. “It’s a chemical to which we have frequent exposure.”

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