Warning: The Food Safety Risk of a Hot Meal and Drink

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Do you like to eat and drink hot foods? Well, here’s some hot news to help you avoid getting burned. 

One common food safety method to prevent food poisoning is to heat the food to a temperature where bacteria are killed, and serving the food hot.  We love hot food, and enjoy its aroma filling the air with mouthwatering appeal. Unfortunately, the hot food is also a food safety risk, since consuming food that is too hot is also a known cause of cancer.  

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It’s amazing that the temperature where people like to drink their coffee or tea is also the temperature which can cause esophageal cancer. 

But before you get all steamed up over the need to cool down, let’s consider the facts. According to a 2010 article in the International Journal of Cancer, entitled, High-temperature beverages and Foods and Esophageal Cancer Risk — A Systematic Review

“In this systematic review, we collected the published literature on the association between consuming tea, coffee, maté, or other high-temperature beverages or foods and risk of EC (Esophageal Cancer). We analyzed the results for amount consumed and temperature of drinking separately. For tea and coffee, there was little evidence that the amount consumed was associated with EC risk, but the majority of the publications reported statistically significant increased risks associated with higher temperature of use. For maté, individual studies and the combined analyses showed increased risk of EC associated with both amount consumed and with temperature of drinking, and these two seemed to be independent risk factors. For other hot foods and drinks, the majority of studies showed higher risk of EC associated with higher temperature of use.”

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in The Lancet, in a 2016 article entitled, Carcinogenicity of drinking coffee, mate, and very hot beverages

“Although the mechanistic and other relevant evidence for very hot beverages is scant, biological plausibility exists for an association between very hot beverages and cell injury and the 10 sequelae that might lead to cancer. On the basis of these considerations and on the totality of the evidence, drinking very hot beverages at above 65°C was classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A).”

As a reminder, 65º C is equal to 149º F.  Food and drinks at this temperature and above are hot enough to cause burns in the esophagus, which can lead to cancer. However, the temperature which food should be served is very close to this. In fact, Chef Resource website has an article, What temp should hot food be served?, which explains, 

“It is a common concern among hosts and chefs alike: What temperature should hot food be served at to ensure both safety and enjoyment? Properly serving hot food is essential, as it not only guarantees that it is safe to consume but also optimizes its flavor and texture. To answer the question directly, **hot food should be served at a minimum temperature of 140°F (60°C)**. This temperature ensures that any harmful bacteria are killed or rendered inert, reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses.”

Of course, some foods come to the table hotter than that. Pizza comes to the table near 90º C, or 194º F, which can damage gums and teeth. We all know how it feels in the gums behind your front teeth after eating a hot, melting cheese pizza. 

Coffee and tea are also consumed hotter than the temperature that causes cancer, which is hot enough to be painful. According to a 2018 study in the journal Foods, entitled, What Temperature of Coffee Exceeds the Pain Threshold? Pilot Study of a Sensory Analysis Method as Basis for Cancer Risk Assessment

“Since 2016, the cancer risk in connection to hot beverage consumption has received increased scrutiny from science and consumers alike. The reason for this has been the classification of “very hot beverage consumption” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) into group 2A as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Specifically, the risk of developing oesophageal carcinoma increases with the consumption of very hot beverages as shown by a number of epidemiological studies. Beverages above 65 ◦C are considered “very hot”.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluates “very hot (>65ºC)  beverages” as probably carcinogenic to humans. However, there is a lack of research regarding what temperatures consumers actually perceive as “very hot” or as “too hot”. A method for sensory analysis of such threshold temperatures was developed. The participants were asked to mix a very hot coffee step by step into a cooler coffee. Because of that, the coffee to be tasted was incrementally increased in temperature during the test. The participants took a sip at every addition, until they perceive the beverage as too hot for consumption. The protocol was evaluated in the form of a pilot study using 87 participants. Interestingly, the average pain threshold of the test group (67ºC) and the preferred drinking temperature (63º C) iterated around the IARC threshold for carcinogenicity.”

What do the coffee connoisseurs say about ideal temperature of coffee? According to the website Home Grounds, in their article, The Ideal Coffee Temperature: How Hot Should Your Coffee Be?

“According to the National Coffee Association of the USA, which informs many large companies in the food and beverage industry, coffee should be served at around 180–185°F, not much lower than the standard brew temperature. However, many coffee experts believe this is too high of a temperature.

They suggest serving coffee somewhere within the range of 155–175°F, leaning more toward the lower end of the scale with higher quality coffee beans. The assumption that lower temperatures are better for specialty coffee fits well with what we already know – that you can use temperature to reveal or mask coffee flavor.

While there is no answer everyone agrees on, there are some useful guidelines to help you find that perfect temperature for your cup of coffee or espresso:

If you prefer the rounded, sweet, and bitter notes of coffee, stick within the 155–175°F range.

If you enjoy a brighter, sharper, and more acidic cup, aim for the 120–140°F range.

If you care more about the warming sensation of hot coffee than you do the flavor, a cup within the range of 180-185°F would be best for you.”

Note that they are recommending temperatures well above the dangerous cancer-causing limit of 65º C, or 149º F. 

What’s a food-lover to do? Must you give up your scalding cup of coffee or hot chocolate on those cold nights? Or is there a way to have your hot cake and eat it, too?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Let hot foods cool for about 5 minutes before consuming. 
  2. If the food or drink is too hot, spit them out. Don’t swallow.
  3. Take smaller sips of hot drinks. 
  4. Even if you don’t want to eat food too hot, make sure you heat, or reheat, the food or drink to  over 160º F to kill bacteria. Then let the food sit a few minutes before consuming. 
  5. Remember that your mouth, teeth, and gums get burned first, and worse than the esophagus, since the food is hottest there. It also burns the tongue and taste buds, reducing the pleasure and perception of flavor.  
  6. People can withstand heat more in the mouth than in the hands. However, for safety, if it’s too hot to handle, then it’s too hot for your mouth, too. 
  7. Hot foods essentially cook your mouth and throat. This harms oral bacteria, too. 
  8. Keep in mind that daily habits, like consuming cups of hot coffee or tea, have cumulative impacts. Over time, the daily assault to your mouth, throat, esophagus, and stomach with hot foods will take a toll.
  9. We have only really focused on Esophageal Cancer. It is likely that hot foods will also contribute to mouth, throat, and stomach cancers. 
  10. Remember that heat is a carcinogen. Consume it with caution.

Cooking food is a culturally defined activity, and our bodies were not designed to consume high temperature foods. But with a little patience, and willingness to eat and drink foods a bit less steamy, you can enjoy the benefits of a tasty, hot meal without getting burned in the process.

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