July 7, 2016
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced this week that “very hot beverages” had been added to their list of probable carcinogens. The evidence is not conclusive, but the agency finds the connection likely enough to suggest caution when drinking drinks above a certain temperature. But some have questioned whether the average coffee- or tea-drinker actually takes their drink that hot, and thus whether there’s any concern for American drinkers.
The WHO announcement came after a group of twenty-three expert scientists were convened by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the WHO’s cancer research wing, and the results were published in The Lancet Oncology.
“These results suggest that drinking very hot beverages [at or above 65 °C or 149°F] is one probable cause of oesophageal cancer, and that it is the temperature, rather than the drinks themselves, that appears to be responsible,” says Dr. Christopher Wild, IARC Director.
The research ruled out coffee and tea themselves as the cause and was able to determine that it was the heat itself that increased cancer risk. In fact, according to the WHO, “the risk of oesophageal cancer increased with the temperature at which the beverage was drunk.”
If you’ve been following this column for a while, you’ll know it was literally once called “Hot Drinks.” That is how deep my personal love for a hot beverage runs. So you can imagine how I felt when I received the crushing news that hot drinks, while many times less risky than alcohol or cigarettes, were nonetheless now joining them on the list of potential and conclusive esophageal cancer triggers.1
This announcement, of course, was like a gold-embossed invitation for Internet grouches to come out of the woodwork and prove just how pedantic they can be at 2 pm on a Wednesday.
Here’s this guy, who we’ll call “That Guy,” since that’s what he called himself. He’s probably very nice and maybe even has a bunch of rescued hamsters that he found abandoned in a cardboard box in front of a Michael’s Arts and Crafts. So I won’t pick on him. But he does seem to be awfully annoyed that I posted this Time article about the WHO’s announcement. But is That Guy right that “American/European-style hot drinks” are not hot enough to reach the temperature threshold deemed risky by the WHO?
Outlets such as USA Today seem to bolster his position. There, author Jessica Campisi writes that it’s “extremely hot” drinks that pose a threat, and that according to the president of the National Coffee Association, the average American drinks her coffee at about 140 degrees Fahrenheit, 10 degrees cooler than the 150 degree threshold set by the WHO. The National Coffee Association president even goes on to (somewhat obtusely) claim that, "This is very good news for coffee drinkers. Anyone in the coffee sector would be happy to see the business grow for the right reasons.”
Strange position but OK.
Vox writer Julia Belluz wrote, “There's one thing to keep in mind here: in the countries where the cancer association was discovered, people typically drink their hot teas or matés at temperatures that exceed 150 degrees Fahrenheit, which many of us would consider to be scalding.”
Scalding? In the very next paragraph, Belluz goes on to write that “researchers have found the sweet spot for drinking is about 136 degrees Fahrenheit,” but that very study points out that it takes at least a 160 degree coffee to cause scald burns. So we’ve got a pretty significant variance here between what some consider scalding (or think sounds scalding, when they hear the numbers) and what actually burns the skin.
The question remains: If I get a coffee at my local takeout or make tea from my kettle is it typically hot enough to raise my cancer risk? Rather than argue about it in comments sections, I decided to find out myself by getting hot drinks at my local stops and taking their temperatures.
My first stop was my local Starbucks, where I ordered a soy cappuccino. Using a kitchen thermometer, I tested the temperature about forty-five seconds after it was handed my way. The cappuccino, ordered without any extra heat, came in at 149.6 degrees Fahrenheit, barely above the WHO threshold but qualifying as a “very hot drink” and thus a potential cancer trigger if drunk right away. However, maybe it would be too hot to drink, and I would have to wait for it to cool? No dice there. One swig and it was clear that it was drinkably warm but not even hot by my standards. Lest I be thought inhuman, I had my boyfriend try it. He confirmed that he, too, could drink it straight down. Maybe he and I are robots who have been programmed to withstand heat, but if we’re normal people (and I like to think we are), then the potentially dangerous drink temperature is not at all hard to gulp down.
So, Starbucks didn’t pass the “under 149 degrees” test, but the drink did cool down by almost ten degrees within minutes. Even so, the idea that 149 degrees is unbearably hot and that only Asian cultures drink fluid that hot clearly doesn’t hold water.
For the next week, I measured all of my hot drinks, and every single one was served to me at a temperature above the WHO threshold with one exception: the 7/11 coffee was a cool 138 degrees when I bought it at 11 pm. All six other drinks, including the homemade drink brewed in a Keurig coffee maker, were above the threshold, some by more than ten degrees and all of them easily drinkable.
The lesson here is not to avoid hot drinks, nor is it to guzzle them down defiantly, but to recognize that the threshold stated by the WHO is about the same temperature as you might get your coffee at your local coffee shop.
If this concerns you, wait a few minutes. Within five minutes, all of my drinks fell below the “safe” temperature. Or carry around a thermometer in your purse, like I did. I’m telling you, I’m normal.
1. Worth noting: Hot drinks are now classified as “probable” cancer triggers. Smoking and alcohol are not only “conclusive” cancer triggers but are many times more damaging. Also worth noting: at no point in this article did I use the pun “brew-haha.”