The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that drinking very hot drinks can “probably” cause cancer. Most of us, though, have little reason to worry, as that hot cup of joe in your hand is probably not going to be your death sentence. In fact, there is some evidence that coffee has positive health benefits instead.
Rather than an actual substance being linked to an increase in oesophageal cancers, the WHO has published a report in The Lancet that instead suggests it is the temperature at which you drink it that is the risk factor. This news, therefore, is unlikely to affect most people consuming hot drinks in Europe and America, but could explain the higher rates of oesophageal cancers in Latin America. This is because they tend to drink a regional tea known as mate at scorching temperatures through metal straws.
The report, conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the part of the WHO responsible for assessing cancer, was looking into the risks associated with drinking coffee, as well as very hot drinks. Earlier studies had concluded that there were increased risks of developing cancer from drinking caffeinated drinks, though this new report seems to have laid that claim to rest by finding no evidence to support it.
But when they looked at the temperature, they found a different story. There are higher rates of oesophageal cancers, or those that affect the oesophagus, in South America. Experts, therefore, decided to look at what local factors may be contributing to this high rate, and turned to the regional tea that is widely drunk called mate (pronounced matay), as traditionally the tea is drunk at exceedingly high temperatures.
The researchers found that it wasn’t specifically the mate that increased the risk of cancer, though, but the high temperatures at which it is drunk. The WHO have announced that anything consumed above 65°C (117°F) “probably” causes cancer, and mate is normally drunk at 70°C (126°F). Not only that, but it is often drunk using a metal straw, which delivers the hot drink directly to the throat. This means that most other hot drinks, such as coffee and tea, which are typically served at below 60°C (108°F) and cooled down with the addition of milk, are not considered a risk.
But we should also take a moment to look at what the WHO means by the term “probably.” They add items to this list if it has some link to cancer, but that covers a wide range of things, from red meat to disruptions of your body’s day/night cycle. All in all, you’re probably not at any major risk, but if you are worried, just let your drink cool a little before drinking.