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Health Column: Enjoy your coffee, but watch the temperature

I love coffee. I’m one of those people who suffers headaches from not drinking coffee during the day.

People like me can now sip on macchiatos with a bit more ease because coffee is no longer considered a possible cause of cancer. On June 15, a report published in Lancet Oncology, a peer-reviewed medical journal, concluded there is a lack of evidence to show that coffee causes certain types of cancers.

A team of 23 international scientists assembled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer — an agency of the World Health Organization — reached the conclusion after reviewing more than 1,000 studies.

“The Working Group found no conclusive evidence for a carcinogenic effect of drinking coffee,” a press release said.

In 1991, the IARC had said coffee was classified as a “possible carcinogen.” Now there may be evidence to show that coffee could actually help prevent some types of cancers.

Dr. Patricia Thompson-Carino, associate director of basic research at the Cancer Center at Stony Brook Hospital, said drawing firm conclusions from these types of studies can be difficult because of the wide range of other possible factors.

“Often times if you are drinking coffee you are also doing other things,” she said. “It’s hard to control for those things [in a study].”

Dr. Thompson-Carino said there is some evidence suggesting coffee can prevent gastrointestinal cancers, like pancreatic, liver and colon. However, data is still limited.

Coffee can still be causally linked to esophageal cancer when consumed at a high temperature just like any other beverage, according to the press release.

“It is the temperature, rather than the drinks themselves, that appear to be responsible,” Dr. Christopher Wild, the IARC director, said in the release.

The leading causes of esophageal cancers are still smoking and drinking alcohol. But the majority of esophageal cancers occur in places like Asia, South America and East Africa, where drinking very hot beverages regularly is common, the release said.

Dr. Thompson-Carino said hot beverages could also cause injuries to the throat.

“We do know that repeated injury to the tissue can make that tissue more sensitive or vulnerable to the processes involved in developing cancer,” she said.

Dr. Thompson-Carino said there is not enough data yet to reach a firm conclusion that regularly drinking hot beverages could cause esophageal cancer.

“It’s just a question that is still out there,” she said.

The danger temperature for beverages is higher than 149 degrees, according to the IARC. In a New York Times wellness blog, Dr. Dana Loomis, deputy head of IARC, said the increased risk comes from those who drink their tea or coffee at 158 degrees. In the United States, we typically drink our hot beverages at less than 140 degrees.

So for now, continue to enjoy your teas and coffees, just let them cool down a bit first.

Have a health column idea for regular columnist Rachel Young? Email her at [email protected].