FDA might consider ban on chemical in decaf coffee over cancer concerns

April 1, 2024

Decaf lovers may get a jolt when they read this. The FDA might consider banning a chemical in decaf coffee, used by major chains including Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts because it has been linked to cancer, reports the New York Post.

This is the most commonly used decaffeinated coffee—made by a process known as European Method Decaf, Food Navigator has reported.

However, banning this method “would unjustifiably deny decaffeinated coffee drinkers access to a safe product associated with decreased risk of multiple cancers and other health benefits,” the National Coffee Association (NCA) warned in a press release on Friday, March 29.

The chemical, called methylene chloride, binds to caffeine and removes it from the beans. The Environmental Defense Fund started the petition to ban the chemical; and the FDA is currently considering it and is expected to have a response in 90 days. 

Campaigners said that, since the chemical is linked to cancer in rats, it goes against a 1958 ruling called the Delaney Clause, which says additives should be banned if they potentially cause cancer in animals. The Clean Label Project (CLP) also is lobbying California’s state assembly to ban methylene chloride.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to ban “most uses” of the chemical in 2023 due to health concerns, but its regulated use in foods is still under the FDA’s Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

While some are against the ban, there are several studies to suggest the chemical poses a potential risk, The Daily Mail reports. A 1986 study found that rodents exposed to methylene chloride in the air developed tumors in their lungs and livers.

In 2016, the EPA said studies on animals revealed exposure to the chemical caused tumors in the breasts.

Studies on humans exposed to the chemical also found a cancer link. A 2013 study of 3,000 adults, who were exposed to the chemical while developing film, had a higher risk of getting blood cancer. Another study conducted in 2011 found a link between exposure and getting brain and liver cancer.

The ban would impact the 10% of American adults—roughly 28 million people—who drink decaf daily, according to the National Coffee Association (NCA).

The NCA says the health benefits of drinking decaf outweigh the risks. “The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence shows that drinking European Method decaf—like all coffee—is associated with significant health benefits, including longer lives and reduced risk of multiple cancers and chronic diseases,” the association comments on its website.

Alternative decaf coffee methods exist, such as the Swiss method, which is when coffee beans are washed using steam—although, this method is said to be expensive and less effective.

Research contact: @nypost