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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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Researchers Unveil the Power of Turmeric in Fighting Cancer

Curcumin is also known to exhibit anti-cancer properties, but its poor solubility in water had impeded curcumin's clinical application in cancer

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Indian-American researchers unleash turmeric's power to fight cancer. Pixabay

A team of Indian-American researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City, has used an ingenious process to enable curcumin to kill cancer cells.

Curcumin is the active ingredient of turmeric (haldi), the ubiquitous kitchen spice that gives curry its yellow color. Turmeric has been used in India for thousands of years as a spice and medicinal herb because of its powerful anti-inflammatory and strong antioxidant property.

Curcumin is also known to exhibit anti-cancer properties, but its poor solubility in water had impeded curcumin’s clinical application in cancer. A drug needs to be soluble in water as otherwise it will not flow through the bloodstream.

Despite decades of research, the development of efficient strategies that can effectively deliver poorly water-soluble curcumin to cancer cells had remained a challenge.

A team headed by Dipanjan Pan, associate professor of bioengineering at UIUC, has now found a way out.

“Curcumin’s medicinal benefit can be fully appreciated if its solubility issue is resolved,” Pan told this correspondent in an e-mail.

turmeric
Indian-American researchers unleash turmeric’s power to fight cancer. Pixabay

Pan’s laboratory collaborated with Peter Stang at the University of Utah on ways to be able to render curcumin soluble, deliver it to infected tumors and kill the cancer cells.

Because platinum is a commonly used cancer therapeutic agent in the clinic, the researchers decided to experiment with a drug consisting of a combination of platinum and curcumin.

“It is a combination of clever chemistry and nano-precipitation utilising host guest chemistry,” Pan explained. “The sophisticated chemistry leads to self-assembled hierarchical structure that drives the solubility of curcumin and simultaneously delivers an additional anticancer agent, i.e. platinum. The combined therapeutic effect — of curcumin and platinum — is lethal for the cancer cells.”

The team has reported its work in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” in the US.

According to their report, the metallocyclic complex created using platinum “not only enabled curcumin’s solubility, but proved to be 100 times more effective in treating various cancer types such as melanoma and breast cancer cells than using curcumin and platinum agents separately”.

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“Our results demonstrate that curcumin works completely in sync with platinum and exerts synergistic effect to show remarkable anticancer properties,” says the report. “The platinum-curcumin combination kills the cells by fragmenting its DNA.”

“Extensive animal studies are in progress in my laboratory, including in rodents and pigs,” Pan said. His team also hopes to prove that this method will be effective in killing cancer stem cells — the birth place of cancer cells — thereby preventing the recurrence of cancer.

Pan’s team included post-doctoral researcher Santosh Misra at UIUC, and Sougata Datta, Manik Lal Saha, Nabajit Lahiri, Janis Louie, and Peter J. Stang from the University of Utah. (IANS)