Decaf Coffee: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

May 13, 2020 | Decaf, Informational | 0 comments

Have you ever wondered why there’s decaf coffee? How coffees are decaffeinated? Is there a naturally decaffeinated coffee? Is decaf coffee safe to drink? Does decaf coffee have zero caffeine? Let’s find out.

Coffee beans, tea leaves, and cacao seeds are naturally rich in caffeine. Yet, not everyone has the tenacity to take all that pure, naturally occurring caffeine every morning. Some 83% of US adults want to cut down their daily caffeine consumption.

The withdrawal symptoms of caffeine, once the effect wears off, are some of the drawbacks of caffeinated drinks. Some people limit their caffeine intake due to high sensitivity to caffeine. While others cut down their caffeine because they are expecting a baby.

Coffee equates to energy! Since people still need a boost to keep going for the whole day, decaffeinated coffee becomes the preferable morning joe, despite having little to no caffeine. Yet, the processes that make a coffee decaffeinated is still a mystery to some.

We often rely on labels but never get the chance to find out what makes the coffee grounds decaffeinated. The information is not often clear. Most importantly, we’re never sure if the decaf coffee we love every morning actually contains less caffeine as promised.

Here at Big Cup of Coffee we did the intensive research for you and tried to be as brief as possible. Allow us to fill in those information gaps with what we’ve found. It’s time to better understand the good, the bad, and the ugly in decaffeinated coffee.

Is There a Naturally Decaffeinated Coffee?

No. Back in 2004, lots of press releases circulated the headlines about a naturally caffeine-free plant. Among the many attempts to engineer the enzyme on the caffeine pathway of every coffee plant only one research program in Japan in 2001 had given good news.

Using RNA interference, which is a gene-silencing technology, Japanese researchers were able to cut down as much as 70% of the caffeine from the controlled plant. Yet, it’s still far from the goal of cultivating a naturally caffeine-free coffee plant. As of today, the research is still on-going and kept under wraps.

But what makes coffee plants become a caffeine-free plant a big challenge? The answer lies in the ability of the caffeine to defend coffee plants against insects.

Caffeine serves as a natural insecticide of the coffee plant. Wild coffee plants with no caffeine are at a disadvantage. However, there are other chemicals that may provide the same protection against these natural predators.

With caffeine removed from the plant, how will the coffee plant be able to protect itself from insects?

The search for a naturally caffeine-free coffee plant continues…

How Is Decaf Coffee Processed?

There are three known methods to decaffeinate coffee. These are Chemical-based Process, Swiss Water Process, and the Liquid Carbon Dioxide Method (CO2 Process).

Chemical-Based Process

Chemical-based has two types of processes. These are the indirect-solvent process and the direct-solvent process. The difference between the two lies in the contact of coffee beans and the chemical solvent used. To extract caffeine from the coffee beans. The widely used solvents in the chemical-based process are Methylene chloride and Ethyl acetate.

Although benzene, dichloromethane, trichloroethylene (TCE), and chloroform used to be coffee chemical solvents. These were flagged as hazardous chemicals and considered as industrial waste. Thus, methylene chloride and ethyl acetate became the solvent of the choice.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, methylene chloride doesn’t pose any health risks. In fact, it is FDA-approved under certain conditions wherein its presence in the  food should be as:

  • Residue from the extraction of spices at a level not exceeding 30 parts per million
  • Hops extract at a level not exceeding 2.2%
  • Extraction solvent of green coffee beans at a level not exceeding 10 parts per million in soluble decaffeinated coffee extract and decaffeinated roasted coffee beans.

Another solvent of choice is ethyl acetate. This is naturally derived from ripening fruits including blackberries and apples. But deriving ethyl acetate in a “natural” way is impractical and costly. So, some roasters opt for synthetically-derived ethyl acetate (commercially produced from ethyl alcohol and acetic acid.)

Yet, between methylene chloride and ethyl acetate, the latter is much preferred. That’s because the synthetical-derived ethyl acetate in food and beverage is not as safe as methylene chloride. But don’t fret! The FDA assures you that commercially-produced additives are still safe.

Now that we’ve explained the chemical solvents used in this process. Let us proceed with the processes that incorporate these solvents to extract caffeine from green coffee beans.

Indirect-Solvent-Based Process

The decaffeination using indirect-solvent involves the following procedures:

  1. The green coffee beans are soaked in near-boiling water for several hours to extract the oils and other flavor elements of the beans.
  2. Next, the water used in soaking the coffee beans is separated and transferred to another tank. The drained, swelling beans were rinsed with a chemical solvent (either methyl chloride or ethyl acetate) for 10 hours.*
  3. Afterward, the rinsed beans are heated to remove the solvent and the caffeine through evaporation.**
  4. Lastly, the green beans are reintroduced to the water. The beans are soaked to the original liquid to reabsorb the coffee oils and flavor elements left in the water.

*During the process of rinsing the green beans with the chemical solvent, its molecules bond with the caffeine molecules. **When heated, the caffeine molecules burn and evaporate with the chemical solvent.

Direct-Solvent-Based Process

The procedures in Direct-Solvent-Based are different from Indirect in one significant way: In this process, ethyl acetate is used. If you’ve seen a coffee tagged as “decaffeinated naturally” it means that ethyl acetate is the extraction solvent used.

To decaf coffee with the direct-solvent-based process, the following procedures are done:

  1. For 30 minutes, the green coffee beans are steamed to open its pores.
  2. Once the beans’ pores are open. These are washed repeatedly for 10 hours with ethyl acetate (or with methylene chloride) as the extraction solvent until the caffeine separates from the beans.
  3. The green coffee beans are then drained and re-steamed to completely remove any residue of the solvent.

If the decaf coffee brand didn’t mention the process used in decaffeination, chances are the coffee is decaffeinated using both processes: the direct- and indirect-solvent-based methods.

Swiss Water Method

The Swiss Water Method is a chemical-free decaffeination technique that uses Green Coffee Extract (GCE) to extract caffeine from the green coffee beans. To avoid confusion. The method is called the “Swiss Water Method” not because it uses water from the Swiss Alps but because this method was developed in Switzerland.

The Swiss Water Method (also known as the SWP Method, the Dihydro-oxide process, the Activated Charcoal Decaffeination) was first introduced in 1933 in Switzerland. In 1980, it was further developed by Coffex S.A to become a viable commercial decaffeination method.

By 1988, the Swiss Water Company finally introduced this chemical-free decaffeination process to the market. It is the only company in the world with a decaffeination facility certified by the OCIA and Aurora Certified Organic as well as by the Kosher Overseers Association.

What makes the SWP Method unique is that it does not rely on solvents to extract caffeine from green coffee beans. It depends on the ability of the green coffee beans (solubility) and the movement of water (osmosis) to take out caffeine from the coffee beans.

To help you understand how the Swiss Water Method works, we’ve shared the procedures used both below and in this video:

  1. To extract the caffeine, the green coffee beans are pre-soaked in a caffeine-free green coffee extract (GCE). The coffee beans expand by 100% which is a preparation for caffeine extraction.
  1. The liquid used during the pre-soaking is then removed from the coffee columns and is returned to its original tank.
  1. The caffeine lean green coffee extract (GCE) from another tank flows into the coffee columns. This will begin the counter-current extraction process. The GCE is water-rich with soluble coffee components.
  1. The decaffeination happens by controlling the time, temperature, and flow to drive the caffeine out from the green coffee beans to the GCE. The caffeine level in the GCE is then maintained right under the equilibrium to optimize the removal of caffeine from the coffee beans to the GCE.
  1. The coffee beans from the oldest coffee bean column (first tank) are then discarded. While the decaffeinated coffee beans (newest, fourth tank) are sent to the multizone dryer for packing.
  1. An evaporative drying process is used to remove moisture from the coffee bean. This moisture is converted into vapor and is removed through the air exhaust stream.
  1. The caffeine-rich GCE is moved from the coffee columns to the carbon columns, which contain activated charcoal filters. In those 4 carbon columns, the caffeine-rich GCE is filtered.
  1. Once the filtering is done. The caffeine lean GCE is returned to its original tank and ready to be reused again.

The only argument against this method is that the decaffeinated coffee beans in this process lose their distinct flavor from the same solution. If you noticed, the extracted liquid from the first batch is used and mixed with the liquid coming from the fresh batch. Thus, the blending of flavors will result in muting the subtle notes of each batch.

CO2 Process

Another decaffeination procedure that does not need a chemical solvent is the Carbon Dioxide process (also known as CO2 Method, Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Method). In this process, the supercritical carbon dioxide in its liquid form will serve as the extraction agent.

The CO2 method is the most recent and most expensive caffeine extraction method. A chemist from the Max Planck Institute named Kurt Zosel accidentally discovered this method in 1967. He noticed that caffeine (a simple alkaline) dissolves in high-pressured carbon dioxide. After much effort in developing this method, he finally patented the CO2 method in 1970.

To better grasp how the CO2 method works, the procedures are presented below:

  1. The milled but unroasted green coffee beans are soaked in a supercritical carbon dioxide liquid. This liquid is superior to water as it has the desirable diffusive properties of a gas and much denser like a liquid.
  2. The beans are moved to a stainless steel extraction vessel. Once the extractor is sealed, the carbon dioxide is compressed at 1000 pounds per square inch at a temperature of roughly 200 degrees Fahrenheit for ten hours.
  3. The CO2 reacts with the green coffee beans by dissolving the caffeine bond and drawing it out from the coffee beans. In this process, what is left to the coffee beans are the large molecules of subtle notes of the beans.
  4. The caffeine-rich CO2 is then transferred to the absorption chamber, where the pressure is released. The CO2 returns to its gaseous state while the caffeine molecules are left behind.
  5. The caffeine-free carbon dioxide is pumped back to the pressurized container, while the caffeine captured and filtered in the activated carbon filters are moved to another vessel.
  6. The decaffeinated coffee is moved to a chamber to remove the moisture, dry, and where it is finally repacked.

The method can remove 95% to 99% of the caffeine in green coffee beans. The caffeine captured is made into a white powder and is sold to industries that use caffeine as ingredients to their products. Such industries are pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and companies that manufacture high-caffeinated beverages like soft drinks and energy drinks.

When it comes to food safety regulations. The FDA affirms that the use of carbon dioxide in food manufacturing is “Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS)”. With certain conditions to meet, such as :

  • The CO2 must be of a purity fitted for its intended use.
  • The CO2 is used according to the “current good manufacturing practice”.
  • The CO2 is used as a “leavening agent, a processing aid, a propellant, an aerating agent, and as a gas defined in the chapters 170.3(o)(25) of Food and Drug Administration under the subchapter B (food for human consumption)”.

This method is widely used to commercially decaffeinate coffee in large quantities. Yet, like any other decaffeination processes it also has its own disadvantages. Other beneficial chemical compounds innate in coffee beans are stripped in this process. The coffee becomes less healthy compared to its original state.

Decaffeinated coffee from this process is suitable for people with high sensitivity to caffeine. It is usually recommended for people who want to limit their caffeine intake. With the CO2 method, coffee becomes less acidic and has a smoother taste.

How Much Caffeine is in Decaf Coffee?

Although decaf coffee has undergone processes to cut caffeine content, this does not guarantee that decaffeinated coffee has zero caffeine. Generally, decaf coffee contains 7 mg of caffeine in every 8-ounce cup of coffee.

Though caffeine content seems low compared to the regular coffee’s 70 to 140mg caffeine content per cup, there are people who are still susceptible to a lot of resulting discomfort. This could include anxiety, agitation, palpitations, and increased blood pressure.

As a matter of fact, there are factors that can affect the caffeine level of coffee. These are the type of beans used for the decaffeination and the roasting level.

The Type of Beans Used

Decaf coffee is made from removing 97% to 99% of the caffeine from green coffee beans using any of the following methods: chemical-based, Swiss Water Method, or CO2 method. Although large portions of caffeine are removed from the coffee bean, the caffeine content of the beans used varies.

For instance, coffee beans in America are usually a blend of two types – the Robusta and the Arabica beans. Robusta coffee beans (2.7%) have twice as much caffeine than Arabica (1.5%). This gives Robusta a more bitter, harsher taste than the delicately sweet taste of Arabica beans.

When these beans complete a decaffeination process, Robusta will have more caffeine left than Arabica. Thus, there’s more variation in caffeine content and taste if you brew instant decaf coffee made from Robusta/Arabica blends or from a single origin.

Arabica v Robusta Infographic

The Roasting Level

The coffee roasts also play a vital role in the caffeine content of a decaf coffee. Many believed that the darker the roasts, the higher the caffeine content. This is not true. If the coffee beans are decaffeinated in their raw form (green) before being roasted, chances of getting a high caffeine content are low.

That’s why a person who wants to limit their caffeine intake doesn’t need to switch from regular coffee to decaffeinated coffee. People can opt for a lighter roast or a decaf coffee made from caffeine-inferior beans.

Is Decaf Coffee Bad for You?

Too much of ANYTHING can be bad. That’s why every doctor’s advice is to do things in moderation. The same thing goes with drinking coffee.

Decaf coffee may look and smell like regular coffee, but it does contain less caffeine. To decaffeinate coffee, the green coffee beans undergo any of the known decaffeination processes explained above. Knowing whether or not a decaf coffee is bad for you depends on the method used in removing the caffeine and the amount of coffee you consume each day.

Though the Swiss Method and CO2 method has no defined health risks in decaffeinated coffee beans, Methylene chloride remains controversial as the caffeine extraction agent of coffee. Methylene chloride is a colorless, volatile organochloride compound with a moderately sweet aroma.

While it might be the best alternative to Ludwig Roselius’ benzene as an extraction agent, the fact that Methylene chloride can also be found on paint strippers, adhesives, and automotive products should raise your eyebrows.

However, the FDA assures the public that the trace amounts of methylene chloride in decaf coffee have little to no effect on our health. That’s because the agency strictly commands that the methylene chloride in decaf coffee should not exceed 10 parts per million (0.001%) in the final product.

Is Decaf Good for You?

Let’s say you love the taste of coffee, it motivates you to get through your day, and going without it would cause deep sadness. If a low caffeine diet was prescribed for any number of health reasons, then decaf coffee is – without a doubt- a “healthy” choice for you, compared with the alternatives. On the other hand, there are some positive health benefits linked with caffeine found in coffee.

Since decaffeination can result in stripping not only caffeine but also other important compounds that are beneficial to our health we can’t help but wonder if it’s still as healthy as the regular coffee. The answer lies in the many studies that linked decaf coffee to be as valuable as regular coffee.

According to a 2014 meta-analysis based on a Harvard study published in one of the journals of Diabetes Care, people who drink 6 cups of coffee per day tend to have a lower risk of contracting Type 2 Diabetes by 10%, regardless of the caffeine level.

A BMJ 2017 study revealed that decaf coffee has little to no direct association with multiple health risks. These are reviewed from the 201 meta-analyses of observational research about the consumption of regular and decaf coffee.

So, this study debunked the myths about drinking decaf coffee and had found favorable results from the meta-analyses reviewed. These are:

  • Lowers risk in premature death
  • Lowers risk in hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases
  • Negligible effect on the lipid profile
  • Lowers risk in developing lung cancer
  • Lowers risk in renal stones and gout
  • Lowers risk in Parkinson’s disease

Even if the coffee beans had undergone decaffeination, decaf coffee still has plenty of health benefits that are worth sharing.

Caffeine is the only compound intentionally removed from the coffee beans, not its antioxidant properties. Yet, the number of antioxidants that you can get from decaffeinated coffee beans are 15% lower than the hydrocinnamic acid and polyphenols found in regular coffee.

Which Decaf Should You Choose?

Since most of the methods used in decaffeinating the coffee beans are not chemical-based nowadays, drinking decaf coffee as part of your morning routine should never be an issue.

Yet, if you’re cautious with the amount of caffeine you consume each day, checking out the method of decaffeination in each bag of instant coffee in the grocery seems reasonable.

However, this can be a bit challenging. There are no labeling rules that require coffee brands to disclose the decaf processes they used. Coffee brands still follow what the FDA had mandated about removing at least 97 percent of caffeine from the coffee beans.

To make sure you won’t be brewing an instant decaf coffee with residues of synthetic solvents, look for coffee bags with organic seals. These guarantees that the coffee plants are free from insecticides and pesticides. Likewise, check that the coffee has undergone a decaffeination process with no contact with chemical solvents.

If by any chance the coffee beans you pick out are not organic, you can ask your supplier about the method used in decaffeinating. If any of the two chemical-based processes were used there’s a big chance that the coffee has trace amounts of the chemical solvent residue.

Who Should Drink Decaf Coffee?

A 2019 study about college students who drink coffee for varied reasons reflects the habits and the age of the coffee drinkers.

In a Kantar Survey, there was a tremendous leap by 43% on the number of teens who prefer drinking sweet coffee drinks over sodas. While on a separate study conducted in 2014, adult coffee drinkers aged between 50 to 64 years old remain the leading coffee drinkers in the US.

From these studies we can conclude that coffee over the years has become an all-time favorite beverage – whether it’s a hot brew or cold brew. Giving up the habit of drinking your favorite joe every morning can be heartbreaking but must if it’s for health reasons, if prescribed by a physician.

With the help of decaffeination many people are still able to drink coffee but with lower caffeine content. Who should drink decaf coffee? Like regular coffee. Anyone can drink decaf IF it is consumed with moderation.

Decaf coffee is highly suggested to pregnant women, elderly, those susceptible to panic attacks, and anxiety. Best of all, if your physician specifically recommends it to you in hopes of controlling your caffeine consumption to improve your overall health.

Conclusion

Coffee has been a favorite beverage to boost your energy, to stay awake, to improve your mood, or to ease stress. But it’s not always the best drink for people with high sensitivity to caffeine. That’s why decaf coffee was introduced in the market to supply great demands for it several decades ago.

Decaf coffee may not be as palatable as your regular coffee but it does have health merits worth considering. You can still enjoy your ritual, your favorite blends or preferences, but with less caffeine. Best of all, some decaf coffee comes with an organic seal to guarantee your safety!

So if you want to cut down your caffeine intake for health reasons, you don’t have to give up the love for drinking coffee. You’ve got a friend in decaf coffee.

Have you tried decaf coffee? Did you like the taste? Have you observed any difference since you drank decaf coffee? Share with us your decaf experience at the comments below!


Cheryl De Torres

Cheryl De Torres

Author

Writing content for 3 years and it wouldn't be possible without a cup of coffee in the morning. And yes! The stronger, the better.

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