It's only fair to share…

In 2015, I wrote “It is amazing that anyone is left alive and that life expectancy continues to increase. Some 984 substances have been categorized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (a WHO subsidiary), in order of carcinogenicity. Only one was found not to be carcinogenic. Sadly, you can’t eat caprolactam as it is used to make synthetic fibre”.

As Joe Jackson sang in 1982, “Everything gives you cancer”.

The latest nonsense to emerge out of this category is the Californian court decision to force Starbucks and other coffee companies across the state to label their coffee with a cancer warning. This is because brewed coffee contains acrylamide which apparently is a carcinogen. The compound is released naturally in the process of roasting or frying some foods such as potatoes. The roasting of coffee beans releases it.

There are two asides (in addition to the obvious one), which make this an expensive joke. Firstly, it only applies to companies with over ten employees. If it was a genuine health threat then the number of employees is irrelevant. How does it not cause cancer if the store only has two workers or if you roast your beans at home?

Secondly a look at the list of Grade One carcinogens on the USA site does not list acrylamide or, of course, caffeine.

The Washington Post notes “According to the American Cancer Society, studies have found that acrylamide increases the risk of cancer in rats and mice when the chemical is placed in the animals’ drinking water at doses 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the levels people might be exposed to in foods.”

Drinking coffee does not cause cancer. Given the number of people who drink it world-wide and the amount consumed over an extended period of time tells us this. It does not need a “study”. Real world data is apparent. People who drink coffee may get cancer, same as those who don’t – but it has nothing to do with the beverage.

Previous reviews have shown when the “links” between different foods and cancer are analysed there is generally an equal number showing increased and decreased rates of cancer. In other words the food has nothing to do with it.

But even if we ignored this, the WHO categories of risk do not pertain to the danger of the substance but to the level of evidence. For example, there may be evidence that one in every one hundred smokers will get cancer. There may be similar evidence that one in every one hundred million people get cancer from bacon (another favourite for the scaremongers).

The WHO “levels” classify these at the same level as the level of evidence is the same. This is meaningless as the actual risk is vastly different. Hence eating bacon is NOT the same as smoking.

It is possible that we might enjoy our takeaway coffee in the outdoors, either wandering to a nearby park or sitting in the outdoor area that many cafes have. The WHO classifies the sun as a grade one carcinogen. Is the next warning to be consuming your coffee outdoors causes cancer?

Without the sun there is no life on earth. Yes, getting regularly burned increases your risk of skin cancer, but see how long we will all live with zero sunshine. Again, it is the quantum that is critical. Yet public health cannot move beyond a binary approach of wither something is good or bad. Nuance and that amounts matter is lost on them.

The court case which was filed eight years ago was brought by some non-profit. Lawyers on both sides will no doubt have made a substantial profit. It is likely the costs have run into tens (maybe hundreds) of millions. How many people have had justice delayed because of this? How many millions of better uses in the health industry would there be for the money spent?

I will leave you to form your own conclusions.

Like the boy who cried wolf, it is possible (although unlikely) that one day public health will find a genuine health threat. They will be hard pressed to get anyone to listen. The constant barrage of meaningless scaremongering is best ignored. As Joe Jackson sang “No caffeine, no protein, no booze or nicotine. Remember, everything, everything, gives you cancer”.