Background Information

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Cancer in Europe

Cancer causes 20% of deaths in Europe1. With more than 3 million new cases and 1.7 million deaths each year, cancer is the most significant cause of death and morbidity in Europe after cardiovascular disease1.

Europe comprises only one eighth of the total world population but has around one quarter of global cancer cases: some 3.2 million new patients per year1. The most common cancers in Europe in 2012 were breast, prostate, bowel and lung, which together accounted for around 40% of all cancer cases2.

ISICS cancer topic graphics_mortality

Coffee and cancer risk

There has been an ongoing debate about the relationship between coffee consumption and cancer since the early 1970s, following the publication of a study that suggested coffee was positively associated with cancer3. The debate became a major topic in 1981, when two publications suggested that coffee caused pancreatic cancer.

International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC): coffee review

In 1991, IARC classified coffee as “possibly carcinogenic to the human urinary bladder” (Group 2B)4. This conclusion was reached after reviewing the limited evidence available at that time. IARC noted that the data “are consistent with a weak positive relationship between coffee consumption and the occurrence of bladder cancer, but the possibility that this is due to bias or confounding factors cannot be excluded.” IARC did not find convincing evidence for an association of coffee with other types of cancer.

However, numerous studies and meta-analyses published since IARC’s last evaluation of coffee in 1991 have shown that there is no significant association between coffee consumption and total cancer mortality. In fact, the body of scientific evidence suggests that, overall, moderate coffee drinking is not associated with an increased risk of developing cancer and in the case of certain cancers, may be associated with reduced risk.

In 2016, IARC included these new studies in an updated review of the scientific evidence related to coffee and cancer. As a result of this review, IARC downgraded the classification of coffee from Group 2B to Group 3, for agents ‘not classifiable as to carcinogenicity to humans’5. IARC’s 2016 review found no clear association between coffee intake and cancer at any body site and, in some cases, found evidence that coffee drinking may actually help reduce occurrence of certain cancers. IARC cited liver and endometrial cancer as two specific examples where coffee drinking may have a protective effect.

Comprehensive reviews of the data concerning coffee drinking and the risk of cancer at various sites have also been undertaken6-13. One, a 2011 meta-analysis of 40 prospective cohort studies, including over 2 million participants across Europe, North America and Asia, which assessed the association between coffee intake and cancer risk in humans quantitatively, found that coffee consumption was not associated with an increased risk of cancer9. For some types of cancer, coffee intake was inversely associated with disease risk. A large Japanese cohort study also found no association between coffee consumption and increased risk of total cancer mortality14.

In its Scientific Opinion on the Safety of Caffeine, published in 2015, The European Food Safety Authority concluded that: “caffeine intakes from all sources up to 400 mg per day (about 5.7 mg/kg bw per day for a 70-kg adult) consumed throughout the day do not give rise to safety concerns for healthy adults in the general population. No health concerns in relation to acute toxicity, bone status, cardiovascular health, cancer risk or male fertility have been raised by other bodies in previous assessments for this level of habitual caffeine consumption and no new data have become available on these or other clinical outcomes which could justify modifying these conclusions”15.

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