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IARC, Please Make Up Your Mind – Does Coffee Cause Cancer?

June 29, 2016

By: Manojit Basu, PhD, Technical Lead, Consumer Product Safety & Regulatory Affairs

Coffee, probably the third most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water and tea has been in the midst of several controversies and scrutiny for decades. There has been a lot of discussion within the scientific community and in the media on health benefits of coffee vs. risks.

Here at the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), we frequently discuss the safety of coffee to address consumer concerns, reply to questions from media, and analyze regulatory policy affecting our member companies.

Since late 2015, these discussions gained momentum as the world become aware of an upcoming review of coffee by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an inter-governmental agency under the World Health Organization (WHO).

There was some nervousness among consumers, food safety experts and policy researchers given IARC’s track record on branding staples in our diet as carcinogen (a substance that can cause cancer). However, the June 2016 announcement will cheer up coffee drinkers around the world. IARC announced that coffee does not cause cancer and is safe for consumption. With this announcement IARC reversed its long-held position since 1990 (26 years for those who do not like doing the math) that coffee can possibly cause cancer. Unfortunately, this big announcement about coffee did not generate as much attention and hype as some of IARC’s previous announcements.

For those of you who have not heard about IARC, this is the same agency which announced that processed meats like bacon cause cancer (2015). By giving “consumption of processed meat” the highest rating, IARC placed bacon in the same category as being exposed to asbestos, or plutonium.

Focusing back on coffee, during the winter months of 1990, IARC brought together global experts to determine if coffee, tea, mate, and some other substances can be classified as carcinogen or not. The outcome was rather shocking as the committee concluded coffee was a possible carcinogen.

As seen in almost all IARC reviews today, the experts in 1990 were reviewing either their own work or studies conducted by colleagues on health risks associated with coffee. So coming to this conclusion was not difficult. Fast forward to 2016, IARC reversed its previously held position, which raises the question what changed from 1990 to 2016? An easy answer will be studies conducted in the last 26 years suggest that coffee does not cause cancer. However the true answer may be twofold – first IARC’s method of a hazard based analysis without considering risks is highly questionable and second IARC could be on a mission to recover the credibility it lost after the processed meat fiasco. Whatever the true answer may be, we at GMA agree with IARC’s conclusion on coffee, and we would also like to see the agency to conduct a risk-based assessment to determine product safety. We also strongly believe that IARC has a major role to play in ensuring public safety but it needs to conduct a scientific and methodical risk based safety assessment rather than its current approach.

The bottom line though, coffee has been consumed for centuries and now consumers can enjoy their coffee free from concerns about cancer risk.


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Filed under: Health & Wellbeing

1 Comment »

  1. cool

    Comment by Antonio Kasparek — August 10, 2016 @ 3:54 am

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