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What We Know About Cancer Risk and Coffee

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Coffee beans are seen in a roaster at a stand at the Coffee Fair in Lima, Peru. VOA
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Trouble is brewing for coffee lovers in California, where a judge ruled that sellers must post scary warnings about cancer risks. But how frightened should we be of a daily cup of joe? Not very, some scientists and available evidence seem to suggest.

Scientific concerns about coffee have eased in recent years, and many studies even suggest it can help health.

“At the minimum, coffee is neutral. If anything, there is fairly good evidence of the benefit of coffee on cancer,” said Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The World Health Organization’s cancer agency moved coffee off the “possible carcinogen” list two years ago, though it says evidence is insufficient to rule out any possible role.

ALSO READ: International Coffee Day: Let’s Debunk Some Coffee Myths

coffee
Roasting beans naturally produces a carcinogen called acrylamide. A California judge found that companies must warn their consumers. VOA

The current flap isn’t about coffee itself, but a chemical called acrylamide that’s made when the beans are roasted. Government agencies call it a probable or likely carcinogen, based on animal research, and a group sued to require coffee sellers to warn of that under a California law passed by voters in 1986.

The problem: No one knows what levels are safe or risky for people. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets acrylamide limits for drinking water, but there aren’t any for food.

“A cup of coffee a day, exposure probably is not that high,” and probably should not change your habit, said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If you drink a lot of cups a day, this is one of the reasons you might consider cutting that down.”

Here’s what’s known about the risks.

ALSO READ: A Pilgrim Smuggled Coffee Beans To India: The Intriguing History behind the Development of Coffee Culture

Drinking Coffee reduces mortality in Kidney patients
Drinking reduces mortality in Kidney patients. Pixabay

The chemical

Start with the biggest known risk factor for cancer — smoking — which generates acrylamide. In the diet, French fries, potato chips, crackers, cookies, cereal and other high-carbohydrate foods contain it as a byproduct of roasting, baking, toasting or frying.

Food and Drug Administration tests of acrylamide levels found they ranged from 175 to 351 parts per billion (a measure of concentration for a contaminant) for six brands of coffee tested; the highest was for one type of decaf coffee crystals. By comparison, French fries at one fast-food chain ranged from 117 to 313 parts per billion, depending on the location tested. Some commercial fries had more than 1,000.

Even some baby foods contain acrylamide, such as teething biscuits and crackers. One brand of organic sweet potatoes tested as having 121 parts per billion.

What’s the risk?

The “probable” or “likely” carcinogen label is based on studies of animals given high levels of acrylamide in drinking water. But people and rodents absorb the chemical at different rates and metabolize it differently, so its relevance to human health is unknown.

A group of 23 scientists convened by the WHO’s cancer agency in 2016 looked at coffee — not acrylamide directly — and decided coffee was unlikely to cause breast, prostate or pancreatic cancer, and that it seemed to lower the risks for liver and uterine cancers. Evidence was inadequate to determine its effect on dozens of other cancer types.

ALSO READ: Californian Court Warns “Coffee Causes Cancer!”

Since 1986, businesses have been required to post warnings about chemicals known to cause cancer or other health risks — more than 900 substances are on the state’s list today — but what’s a “significant” risk is arguable.

Sellers and other defendants in the lawsuit that spurred Thursday’s ruling have a couple of weeks to challenge it or appeal.

bulletproof coffee
The law “has potential to do much more harm than good to public health,” by confusing people into thinking risks from something like the drink are similar to those from smoking, Giovannucci said. Pixabay

The International Food Information Council and Foundation, an organization funded mostly by the food and beverage industry, says the law is confusing the public because it doesn’t note levels of risk, and adds that U.S. dietary guidelines say up to five cups of coffee a day can be part of a healthy diet.

Dr. Otis Brawley, the American Cancer Society’s chief medical officer, said, “The issue here is dose, and the amount of acrylamide that would be included in coffee, which is really very small, compared to the amount from smoking tobacco. I don’t think we should be worried about a cup of coffee.”

Amy Trenton-Dietz, public health specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the California ruling contrasts with what science shows.

“Studies in humans suggest that, if anything, coffee is protective for some types of cancer,” she said. “As long as people are not putting a lot of sugar or sweeteners in, tea and water are the best things for people to be drinking.” VOA

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High carbohydrate intake may increase cancer recurrence risk

Five-year survival rates among these patients continue to be low, in part because these cancers are often detected in the later stages

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Can sugar contribute to growth of cancer in your body? Pixabay

Consuming high amounts of carbohydrates and sugar prior to treatment for head and neck cancer may increase the patients’ risks of cancer recurrence and mortality, a new study reports.

Patients who consumed the most total carbohydrates and sugars — in the form of sucrose, fructose, lactose and maltose — in the year preceding the cancer treatment were at greater risk of mortality from any cause during the follow-up period. Out of the 400 cancer patients in the study, published in the International Journal of Cancer, more than 17 per cent experienced recurrence of their cancer, and 42 patients died from it.

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Cancer can be caused by excessive intake of sugar and carbohydrates too. Pixabay

Associations among carbohydrate intake and patient outcomes differed by cancer type and stage, said lead author Anna E. Arthur, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

However, eating moderate amounts of fats and starchy foods such as whole grains, potatoes and legumes after treatment could have protective benefits, reducing the patients’ risks of disease recurrence and death, he added.

What We Know About Cancer Risk and Coffee

“Our results, along with the findings of other studies, suggest that diet composition can affect cancer outcomes,” said co-author Amy M. Goss, professor at the University of Alabama.

Higher mortality rates were found among people with oral cavity cancer who consumed the greatest amounts of total carbohydrates, total sugars and simple carbohydrates, but the researchers found no such associations among people who had oropharyngeal cancers.

Chronic diseases are not yet included in cancer prevention schemes.
Cancer can be caused due to too much sugar.

“Although in this study we found that higher total carbohydrate and total sugar were associated with higher mortality in head and neck cancer patients, because of the study design we can’t say that there’s a definitive cause-effect relationship,” Arthur said.

Five-year survival rates among these patients continue to be low, in part because these cancers are often detected in the later stages, putting patients at high risk of recurrence, the researchers said. IANS

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