Coffee in California will soon carry a frightening cancer warning. How worried should we be?

Is our daily cup of Joe really that bad?

Is our daily cup of Joe really that bad?

(Credit: Jordan Merrick/unsplash.com)

Coffee lovers everywhere were alarmed recently when a California judge ruled that coffee being sold in that state must now be accompanied by a stern warning that coffee causes cancer. Not coffee, too! Is nothing safe?! Well, hold onto your lattes, while we dig into the facts.

The California ruling centred around the fact that coffee contains acrylamide, a compound formed when certain foods are processed at high heats (such as roasted coffee beans), which has been proven to be carcinogenic to animals. However, scientists have not been able to establish that it poses the same risk to humans. In fact, after reviewing more than 15 studies, one group of researchers reported "…we found no consistent or credible evidence that dietary acrylamide increases the risk of any type of cancer in humans….". Health Canada scientists, among the first to study acrylamide formation, report that the foods with the highest levels of acrylamide are actually potato chips and french fries, with wide-ranging concentrations also found in foods such as cookies, breakfast cereals, bread and roasted almonds. But again, no evidence that it is actually carcinogenic in humans, although studies are ongoing.

So, is coffee okay? In 2016 the World Health Organization moved coffee off its "possible carcinogen"list. According to Dana Loomis, deputy head of the  WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer, "There's no particular reason for concern at this stage. We can't say that it's completely safe because proving a negative is very difficult, but it has moved down a step in terms of the hierarchy of concern."

Just last year the European Journal of Cancer Prevention reported, "We reviewed available evidence on coffee drinking and the risk of all cancers.… Coffee consumption is not associated with overall cancer risk." Further, they reported evidence that drinking coffee may reduce the risk of liver, endometrial, oral/pharyngeal, prostate and colorectal cancer. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, "Research suggests that drinking coffee may help protect against uterine and liver cancer." And the American Cancer Society reports that "…many of the newer studies link coffee drinking to a lowered risk of some types of cancer, including prostate cancer, liver cancer, endometrial cancer, and some cancers of the mouth and throat."

So, is coffee good for us? Along with its probable anti-cancer effects, studies have shown that coffee may provide a wide range of other health benefits including reducing the odds of developing memory loss, Type 2 diabetes and inhibiting inflammation thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, thanks to high levels of antioxidants.

However, before you down that third double espresso, remember that moderation is key. Health Canada, advises that up to 400 mg of caffeine per day (about three 8 oz cups of brewed coffee) is fine for most people, but too much caffeine can cause insomnia, headaches, irritability and nervousness. People who are sensitive to caffeine may experience these effects with much lower levels. Health Canada also warns that  for pregnant women too much caffeine increases risk of miscarriage and low birth weight.

So what's the bottom line? Although doctors aren't yet recommending that non-coffee drinkers take up the habit for their health, there's no real reason not to continue to enjoy your daily cup of Joe if it makes you happy. I know I will.

Shannon Sponagle is a Nutritional Consultant and freelance writer living in Lunenburg, NS.