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Sunday, May 19, 2024

FDA to Investigate the Safety of Drinking Decaf Coffee


WASHINGTON — A number of health advocacy organizations are urging the FDA to prohibit the use⁤ of a crucial chemical in the decaffeination process, citing potential cancer risks.

The chemical in​ question is methylene chloride, an odorless liquid utilized in various industrial procedures, such⁢ as paint stripping, pharmaceutical production, paint ⁤remover manufacturing, and metal cleaning and degreasing, as per the Occupational Safety and​ Health Administration.

Dr. Maria Doa, senior director of chemical policy for the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the five groups and individuals who submitted two food and color additive petitions ‌to the FDA in November, stated that methylene chloride⁤ has long​ been recognized as a carcinogen by the National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Program, the Environmental Protection ‌Agency, and the⁢ World Health Organization.

The FDA began considering the ⁤petitions on Dec. 21 and accepted public comments on the filing notice until March 11.

Dr. ​Doa further explained via email‍ that, ⁤”In addition to being ⁤carcinogenic, methylene chloride can cause other health harms,‍ such as liver toxicity and ⁤at higher exposures neurological effects, and in some cases death.” These risks ‌are associated with acute external exposure to high levels of ‍the chemical⁣ or ingestion of the chemical⁣ on its own, ⁣according to the U.S. Centers for ‌Disease Control and Prevention.

Due to the chemical’s toxicity, the EPA banned its sale as a paint stripper in 2019. In 2023,‌ the agency proposed a ban on its sale for other consumer⁣ uses and many industrial and commercial uses, Doa ⁢said. However, food‍ uses regulated by the ‍FDA under ⁣the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act remain.

The Environmental Defense Fund and ⁢its co-petitioners argue that the ⁢FDA, by⁢ allowing ‍methylene chloride in food, is “disregarding” a⁣ 66-year-old amendment to the federal act known as⁢ the Delaney Clause. This clause ⁤mandates the FDA to ban food additives proven ⁤to cause or induce cancer when ingested by humans or animals.

“Thus, these chemicals categorically‌ cannot and should not‌ be deemed as safe,” Doa stated.

An FDA spokesperson said in⁣ a‍ statement that the FDA is currently reviewing the petitions but does not comment on them while they are under review.

Here’s what experts and the FDA say about this clause in the modern context, and what you should know about the safety of decaf coffee.

What we know about methylene chloride

The FDA has one regulation permitting the use of methylene chloride as a solvent to decaffeinate coffee, stipulating that “the residues of methylene chloride must not exceed 10 parts per million (0.001%) in decaffeinated roasted coffee and in decaffeinated soluble coffee extract (instant coffee).”

An FDA spokesperson said via email, “While methylene chloride may be indirectly involved in food processing, such as in the decaffeination of coffee beans, residue limits have been set to limit exposure.‍ Any ⁣food product that contains residues of⁣ methylene chloride above the established limits are not permitted for sale or‍ consumption.”

William ⁢Murray, President and CEO ​of the National Coffee Association,‌ argued that banning European Method decaf coffee — the type that uses methylene chloride — “would defy science and harm American’s⁣ health.”

“There⁢ is no evidence that European⁣ Method ‍decaf presents any risk,” he added via ‍email. “Indeed, the overwhelming weight of independent‌ scientific evidence shows that drinking European Method⁢ decaf, like all coffee, is associated with decreased⁤ risk of multiple⁤ cancers and with other significant health benefits.”

However, Doa countered that the FDA’s last decision ‌on the chemical’s use for coffee “is decades old and clearly outdated.”

‘There still isn’t a‌ lot of clear or conclusive research’

Monique Richard, a registered dietitian nutritionist ‍and owner of Nutrition-In-Sight, ‍a private practice in Tennessee,⁢ noted that many people‍ today consume larger portions⁣ of beverages or food than the smaller⁢ standard sizes⁢ of decades ago.⁤ For instance, while a standard cup of coffee ​was once 5 or 8 ounces, the​ smallest size at your local coffee shop today is ⁣likely 12 ounces.

“But there still isn’t a lot of clear or conclusive research that ingesting residual levels⁤ in coffee specifically⁤ will cause cancer or other problems,” said Richard, who wasn’t involved in the petitions.

However, she added, “we certainly want to be⁢ obviously proactive and be aware of some of these things.”

Research on what the human body can ⁣handle in terms of⁤ toxic load is evolving. Scientists are learning more about genetic disposition and gene ​expression, which ‌can provide information about what​ cells can tolerate in terms ‌of an assault on‍ the ⁣body. “So it may be less about what’s actually in your coffee, but what other factors are affecting your body?” Richard asked. “Even a ⁤’minute’ amount could⁣ be significantly destructive on a cellular level, over time,” she added.

While methylene chloride has long been commonly used in ⁤the decaf industry, some‌ companies have introduced alternative methods or stopped using it entirely.

What⁣ you‌ can do now

The decision on whether or not the FDA will eventually ban methylene chloride could take years.

However, if you want to avoid potential methylene chloride exposure, when buying decaf coffee, look for product packaging with labels such as solvent-free,‌ Swiss Water processed or⁣ certified organic, Doa advised.

“As a consumer, always do your research,” ‍Richard suggested. “Look up what you​ can about the company. Ask those⁢ questions if you can get on a customer hotline on their website.”

Also‍ consider⁤ how often ‍you’re drinking decaf coffee, how much⁤ and why, she added.

“If you’re concerned about that and you just are confused, there’s lots of substitutes that are caffeine-free,” Richard said. These include beverages made from chicory root, figs and barley, dandelion root, mushroom elixirs, cacao, ⁢rooibos and yerba maté.

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  1. I agree with this decision. Consumers deserve to know that the decaf coffee they are drinking is safe for them.


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