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Does Coffee Really Cause Cancer? What You Need to Know

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health & Sex Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist, adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling...

California judge rules Starbucks has to provide cancer warnings, but scientific evidence is lacking

Many people depend on the caffeine kick from coffee to start their day, but is there a substance in coffee that could cause cancer? A judge in Los Angeles thinks so and ruled yesterday that Starbucks and other purveyors of coffee must put cancer-warning labels on their product.

Scientists, however, are not nearly as certain as the judge. There is still no firm verdict from them about whether a chemical used in the coffee-roasting process is actually carcinogenic.

But that's precisely Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle's point. When the Council for Education and Research on Toxics presented their case, they requested that coffee companies either stop using a chemical called acrylamide in the roasting process or put warning labels on coffee indicating that it can cause cancer. The same group has had previous success getting acrylamide reduced in the processing of potato chips.

In his decision, Berle said the coffee industry wasn't able to prove coffee doesn't cause cancer and providing information on the various health benefits of drinking coffee didn't count, Reuters reported.

The health benefits of coffee have been the subject of countless studies and include lowering the risk of diabetes and heart diseasereducing risk of stroke and depression; and helping to combat cirrhosis of the liverasthma attacksgallstones, liver cancer, melanoma, prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease. It may even lead to a longer life.

More: 6 Healthy Benefits of Coffee That May Justify Your Habit

So does coffee cause cancer or not?

In short, we don't know for sure. It appears as though the research groups like the Council for Education and Research on Toxics rely on is one study by nonprofit research center RTI International in which acrylamide caused cancer in rodents. Another study by the University Hospital Cologne in Germany found that humans process acrylamide differently than rodents, making the cancer link tenuous.

The Food and Drug Administration's website indicates that they're "still in the information gathering stage" when it comes to acrylamide. The organization provides suggestions on how to reduce the chemical's presence in your diet as well as guidelines for how the food-processing industry could use less of it, but clarify that these are only recommendations at this stage and not requirements.

More: Can Coffee Really Make You Live Longer? It's Complicated

Also of note is that while acrylamide was once listed on the World Health Organization's list of carcinogens, it was removed in 2016.

Right now, we need new independently conducted clinical trials looking into the effects of acrylamide on humans — ones that are not funded by coffee companies or others with a stake in this debate. After that, scientists can weigh the risks and benefits of the beverage and make evidence-based recommendations. Until then, like everything else, enjoy your coffee in moderation.

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