Question for Coffee Industry: Does Beverage Cause Cancer?

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A California judge ruled that one ingredient in coffee was dangerous enough to be a potential cause of cancer. Starbucks Corp. (NASDAQ: SBUX) and other coffee makers will need to put warning labels on their products. The decision may be arbitrary since there is a large body of evidence that coffee has a neutral effect, or even a positive one, on health.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle ruled that:

While plaintiff offered evidence that consumption of coffee increases the risk of harm to the fetus, to infants, to children and to adults, defendants’ medical and epidemiology experts testified that they had no opinion on causation. Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.

Among the reasons that coffee might be a danger to human health is that it often contains acrylamide. There is evidence that it might cause cancer. The judge said that coffee companies had not done enough to disprove this.

There is no question that there is also evidence that coffee is good for people. While it is not definitive, it indicates that coffee has positive benefits.

An article in the medical journal Circulation noted that “Higher consumption of total coffee, caffeinated coffee, and decaffeinated coffee was associated with lower risk of total mortality.”

A note from the Mayo Clinic pointed out that:

Studies have shown that coffee may have health benefits, including protecting against Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and liver disease, including liver cancer. Coffee also appears to improve cognitive function and decrease the risk of depression.

The conclusion of the Mayo Clinic analysis did show that in some cases, “unfiltered coffee (boiled or espresso) has been associated with mild elevations in cholesterol levels.”

A WebMD survey of opinion of medical studies about coffee has similar conclusions to the Mayo Clinic ones. One expert quoted in the analysis agreed. Frank Hu, M.D., MPH, Ph.D., nutrition and epidemiology professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “There is certainly much more good news than bad news, in terms of coffee and health.”

That does, however, imply there may be some bad news.

The studies about the positive effects of coffee number well into the dozens.

The judge who made the ruling on coffee labels made his decision based on a limited amount of information, almost exclusively on one ingredient. And the effects of that ingredient have not been proven without a doubt.

Is coffee dangerous to human health? For the most part, the answer is no.