A new report says tea drinkers have a higher chance of having esophageal cancer. But how worried should we really be?

By Maggie O'Neill
March 21, 2019

Tea has been linked to a host of health benefits, from heart health to cavity prevention. But a new report from the International Journal of Cancer warns that you need to be drinking your tea a certain way: cooler than 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

The report claims that if you drink three cups of tea or more at a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher each day, your risk of having esophageal cancer shoots up by 90%.

So how worried should tea lovers really be? Health spoke to Brian Henick, MD, a medical oncologist who specializes in esophageal cancer and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, to find out.

For starters, Dr. Henick says, the new research might not be applicable to people all around the world. The study participants live in Iran’s Golestan Province, an area with a higher-than-usual esophageal cancer rate. Some people even call the region the participants live in the “esophageal cancer belt,” Dr. Henick says.

In the area, there are between 14 and 17 cases of esophageal cancer per 100,000 people, according to a 2015 report, whereas in the U.S., there are just four cases per 100,000 people, according to the National Cancer Institute. In the U.S., about 17,650 new cases of esophageal cancer will be diagnosed this year, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), with more men affected than women.

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The conditions of the study may not match how people drink tea at home, Dr. Henick adds. The researchers measured the temperature of the tea the study participants drank in a controlled setting; the temperatures the participants preferred at home could have differed.

“The investigators actually had an interview where they measured the temperature of the tea [the participants] were drinking,” Dr. Henick explains. “This was taken to be representative of the temperature of tea they drink at home. You can see there’s potential for a loss of information.”

While the study might provide some clues as to potential esophageal cancer risk factors, we’re a few steps away from the need to change our tea-drinking habits in the U.S. “It makes sense to look at behaviors that are unique to this region,” he says. However, “to try to extrapolate from this information to other regions of the world—you can’t really do it because there may be other variables that confound these results.”

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Dr. Henick says he’s never come across a case of esophageal cancer that was presumed to have been caused by the consumption of very hot tea (phew). For what it’s worth, hot drinks are usually consumed at temperatures below 149 degrees, according to the ACS; get up to the 160 to 185 degree range and you risk burning your mouth.

Experts are more concerned about known esophageal cancer risk factors: Smoking and drinking alcohol have been linked to an increased risk of esophageal cancer, as have obesity and acid reflux.

So tea drinkers, sip in peace—you don’t need to rush to change your routine just yet.

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