Is Decaf Coffee Good or Bad?

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I love a hot cup of joe in the morning. That first sip usually elicits an audible sigh of pleasure. So why have I recently switched to decaf? The reason is currently strapped to my chest while I write this post: my newborn son. Since he was born four weeks ago, I left the fully leaded stuff behind in hopes of preserving this surprisingly sleepy, peaceful baby I have been blessed with. But my switch to decaf got me curious about the decaffeination process, and whether decaffeinated coffee came with the same benefits as regular. Read on to find out!

How is coffee decaffeinated?

Since caffeine is naturally occurring in coffee beans, they have to be processed to remove it. There are a few ways that this processing occurs (note that all are performed on green coffee beans, before they are roasted):

  1. Organic solvents – solvents are used in either a direct or indirect process. In the direct process, the coffee beans are steamed to open their pores, then repeatedly washed with a solvent that binds with caffeine. The solvent/caffeine compound is drained away. In the indirect process, water is added to the beans which leaches out the caffeine (along with much of the flavor). The water is separated from the beans and treated with a solvent. The liquid is then heated to evaporate the solvent/caffeine compound, and the flavorful water is added back to the beans. In the indirect process, the solvent never touches the beans directly. The two most common solvents used nowadays are methylene chloride and ethyl acetate (a naturally occurring substance found in some fruits).
  2. Water – in a process known as the “Swiss Water Process,” the beans are also soaked in water to remove the caffeine, then the water is run through activated charcoal or carbon filters to remove the caffeine. Cleverly, the original batch of flavorless beans is discarded, and the flavorful (and caffeine-free) water is then added to a new batch of beans. Since the flavor compounds are present in the water, the flavor compounds in the new beans are not leached out, only the caffeine is (thanks osmosis!). This process is thought to retain the best flavor in the coffee beans.
  3. Carbon dioxide – in a process usually referred to as Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Extraction, water soaked coffee beans are placed in an “extraction vessel” where carbon dioxide (in liquid form) is pumped in under high pressure. The carbon dioxide binds to the caffeine and is removed into a separate chamber. Carbon dioxide is the same molecule used in carbonated sodas.

If you’d like more detail on these processes, this blog does a very nice job.

Is it really caffeine free?

You’ve probably heard that decaf coffee is not 100% caffeine free. This is true, but the processes outlined above do remove at least 97%, which translates to an average of 5 mg caffeine in an 8 oz cup of decaf (compared to approximately 85 g in a cup of regular).

Is it safe?

Generally, we are told to avoid processed foods because they are not good for us. It turns out all three of the processes outlined above are regarded as safe methods of caffeine extraction. In the case of using an organic solvent, there is the possibility that some solvent residue remains on the beans. But those used these days are regarded as safe (in the past some solvents used were found to be carcinogens, hence the stigma of “chemicals” in decaf coffee). Also, the common solvents used today likely do not survive the roasting process.

If you want to err on the side of caution and prefer to avoid solvents completely, you can pick a brand that uses either the Swiss Water Process or Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Extraction. The Swiss Water Process is used for most organic decaf coffees.

Is it good for you?

Coffee has some beneficial effects, largely due to its high antioxidant content. Interestingly, coffee is one of the biggest sources of antioxidants in the Western diet. Antioxidants protect against free radical damage to our body’s tissues. It has been shown that decaffeinated coffee has relatively similar levels of antioxidants as regular coffee. So benefits associated with these components would be similar to regular coffee, such as reduced risk of diabetes, protective effect on the liver, and reduced risk of premature death, among others.

Keep in mind, the benefits associated with coffee that are attributed to its caffeine content would not pertain to decaf coffee. These include improved mental function, increased metabolic rate, and enhanced sports performance, among others.

Conclusion

So, after my research, I feel comfortable drinking my cup of decaf in the morning. In fact, the taste of decaf is more mild than regular coffee, which might be appealing to some. Others (including my husband) would question what the point is without the caffeine! Luckily decaf coffee is still a good source of antioxidants. Keep in mind that whatever kind of coffee you choose, limit those crazy drink creations laden with fat and sugar and stick with the straight stuff with a splash of milk.

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