If you have been following with my coffee series you know how much I love the stuff. (If you missed it be sure to check out these popular articles: Make Your Coffee Healthier and What Dietitians Order at Starbucks.) A cup of good cup of regular is certainly my style most of the time. When I’m avoiding or limiting caffeine I certainly miss the ritual of a cup of coffee! And while I like herbal tea it just doesn’t always cut it for me like coffee does. And that my friends is where decaf comes into play.
So, have you ever heard decaf is actually worse for you than regular coffee due to the chemical processing? Or maybe you’ve heard decaf isn’t actually decaf? If you have any questions about decaf coffee including how decaf coffee is processed, then this article is for you!
Does Decaf mean Caffeine Free?
It’s really important for some people to avoid caffeine. However, is decaf coffee really caffeine free? The short answer is simple: no, it’s not. To be classified as decaf by FDA standards, 97% of the caffeine must be removed. Since different types of coffee beans contain different amounts of caffeine, the caffeine content of decaf ends up varying significantly.
In reality, some research has shown that even within the same type of decaf coffee the caffeine content can vary, especially at coffee shops and restaurants. For example, they found that Starbucks decaf espresso from the same establishment on the same day ranged from 3-15.8mg caffeine. Moreover, in 2007 Consumer Reports found that some decaf coffee drinks from chains can be as high as 32 mg (namely at Dunkin’ Donuts, drink size not listed).
So, while decaf is certainly reduced in caffeine, it’s important to realize it is not a caffeine free choice. This may be especially important for those who need to, for health reasons, avoid caffeine altogether. It can be equally important if someone were having multiple cups of decaf throughout the day and thus adding up to a larger amount of caffeine that you may realize!
How Decaf Coffee is Processed
This is really the big question because many of us have heard that decaf contains chemicals due to processing. And most of us probably don’t want to trade caffeine for potentially harmful chemicals!
Decaf coffee has been around since the early 1900’s and the first method for decaffeinating involved a rinsing process with benzene. Due to benzene’s link to cancer, no one uses this method anymore. Today, there are actually several different methods for removing caffeine from coffee.
Each method for how decaf coffee is processed that is used today generally starts with green coffee beans and can be grouped together into three separate categories: use of a chemical solvent, carbon dioxide, or the Swiss water method.
This process is done with the use of methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. Though the amount left in the coffee is said to be safe as any residue is actually boiled off, if you prefer to completely avoid chemicals you may wish to avoid this processing. Some may argue that ethyl acetate is a “natural” processing since it occurs in nature. However, the ethyl acetate coffee producers use is synthetic. Some coffee producers using this method even market it as “natural decaf.”
Instead of chemical solvents, this method uses liquid carbon dioxide. This method is very efficient at removing caffeine, but is costly and generally done on large batches such as coffee in the grocery store. Many experts consider this method safe as it does not involve chemical solvents.
The (Swiss) Water Method
This method is more common in organic coffee and involves water and osmosis, also known as the Swiss Water Method. Coffee beans soak for many hours and then filter through charcoal, removing the caffeine. People typically report this processing method tastes blander than others.
Additionally, the Swiss Water Method processes coffee until it is 99.9% caffeine free. Therefore, any decaf coffee labeled “Swiss Water Process” is sure to be very low in caffeine and free of chemicals.
Who Uses What Method?
Unfortunately, many brands I contacted to obtain information on processing have yet to get back with me. However, here’s a few brands who are either transparent about their processing or responded to my request.
Better Brands to Choose (Water or carbon dioxide processing)
Caribou Coffee – Water Processing
Swiss Water Processed – Any brand marked ‘Swiss Water Process’ is free of chemicals
McDonald’s – Swiss Water Method
Decaf You May Wish to Avoid (Chemical solvent used)
Starbucks – methylene chloride
Folgers – ethyl acetate (per an email with J.M. Smucker Company)
How Does Decaf Weigh Up Health-Wise?
Decaf coffee has not been studied as much as regular coffee. However, while it may certainly be a beneficial choice for those that wish or need to limit caffeine, it can have similar effects as regular coffee including causing heartburn in those that experience it with regular coffee. And interestingly, it can still stimulate the nervous system and briefly raise blood pressure in some people. So, if you have a certain health condition or desire to avoid caffeine, decaf might be the right choice for you. Just know that all decaf is not created equal!