For us coffee-holics, nothing beats a cup of coffee to ward away stress, laziness or tiredness of our busy lives. A few sips of this golden beverage, and we feel reenergized instantly. It therefore comes as no surprise that coffee is the highest-preferred beverage in the world, with over 400 billion cups of coffee consumed every year.
However, did you ever wonder what makes coffee so cherished and treasured? Major credit goes to the stimulant present in the coffee beans, namely caffeine.
Let’s begin with the obvious point of view – coffee purists consider decaffeination unnatural and unnecessary, taking into account the fact that caffeine exists naturally in coffee. The inherent caffeine content is what made coffee one of the world’s favorite trade commodities for several decades now.
However, the caffeine content has also been the center of considerable blame-game in recent times, and has been defamed for its alleged harmful effects on one’s body, mind and well-being. This gave rise to a popular alternative that claims to offer all the other benefits of coffee except for the caffeine content, namely decaffeinated coffee or decaf.
Is decaf really the answer to all the health problems claimed to be linked to excess consumption of caffeine? Is decaffeinated coffee really the cure-all that the manufacturers claim it is? Here we take a closer look at the decaffeinated coffee phenomenon – whether it really is better than regular coffee, how it’s made and what it means for your health.
What is Decaffeinated Coffee?
Simply put, decaffeinated coffee is made from coffee beans that have had at least 97% of their caffeine content removed. The result is a decaffeinated cup of coffee that won’t offer you the usual caffeine kick or instant pick-me-up feeling that you expect from a normal cuppa. It also means that you will not need to worry about the alleged side effects of caffeine if you consume a decaf.
Is Decaf Coffee Really Caffeine-free?
Not only have decafs become trendy and are perceived as cool, but they also help you cut back on your daily caffeine intake. However, don’t let the name fool you – decaffeinated coffee is not exactly 100% caffeine-free, contrary to what the name suggests.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not laid stringent regulations or guidelines for what a decaffeinated coffee brew should ideally constitute, resulting in differing caffeine levels in each decaf coffee brand. Different coffeehouses and roasters use coffee beans from different origins, of varying quality, and employ different bean processing, roasting and grinding techniques – which is why their decaffeinated coffee brews may contain differing percentages of caffeine.
While most decaffeinated coffee brews are supposedly 97% caffeine-free, fact remains that none of the caffeine extraction methods are regulated or completely effective, and some decafs may still contain between 3 and 11 milligrams of caffeine per cup. Thus, it doesn’t come as a surprise that while some decaf beverages don’t even register in your system when you consume them, others definitely cause you to feel refreshed or even jittery, just like a normal cup of coffee.
How is Coffee Decaffeinated?
The process of stripping away caffeine from coffee has evolved over previous decades – from steeping in seawater, to the dreadful usage of benzene, to employing the less fearful methylene chloride, to more ethical and safer methods like steeping in carbon dioxide and water.
While the methods currently used are much safer and do not use toxic chemicals any longer, some of the modern procedures still use potent chemicals to strip away the caffeine. Since caffeine is a water-soluble compound, all the methods have one thing in common: green coffee beans steeped in water, to which the solvents/ filters/ liquid CO2 is added.
Here we take a look at the different methods used for decaffeinating coffee:
According to the age-old coffee lore, a coffee merchant Roselius stumbled upon the concept of decaffeinated coffee in the early 1900s when a shipment of coffee beans was accidentally soaked in sea water during transit, in which the caffeine content got extracted.
Roselius then proceeded to patent the first commercial process of extracting caffeine content from coffee beans. However, instead of resorting to usage of salt water, he used benzene – a potent industrial chemical solvent with applications in manufacturing of dyes, resins, synthetic compounds etc – to extract the caffeine.
Since it is now known that benzene is a human carcinogen and can cause headaches, nausea and respiratory irritation, even when inhaled even in minute quantities, it doesn’t come as a surprise that this method of decaffeination got a bad rap and had to be discontinued eventually.
Methylene Chloride / Ethyl Acetate
Methylene Chloride is a volatile, colorless industrial solvent that finds application in paint thinners and paint strippers, whereas ethyl acetate is a highly flammable solvent commonly used in nail polish removers and glue. The usage of these strong industrial solvents for caffeine extraction has met with objection from researchers, health experts and consumers alike, but is continued till date.
Swiss Water Process
This process utilizes an activated charcoal filter for extracting caffeine from the coffee beans steeped in water, thus making the process organic and free of chemical solvents. The resulting decaffeinated coffee is also certified as 99.9% caffeine-free. However, this method cannot be used to process large batches at once, rendering the final decaffeinated coffee relatively more expensive.
Liquid Carbon Dioxide
Developed by Kurt Zosel, a scientist, this method employs liquid carbon dioxide or CO2 to remove the caffeine alone, and nothing else. The green coffee beans are steeped in water inside a stainless steel container, and liquid CO2 is pumped inside under very high pressure, during which the caffeine is extracted.
What Should you Look for in a Decaf Coffee Brand?
Since there are no strict pre-defined labeling regulations which demand the disclosure of the exact decaffeination method used by a particular brand or roaster, it may be ideal to find out exactly which process was employed, so that you can minimize your exposure to synthetic solvents and their adverse effects on your health.
Look for decaf brands that are organic or solvent-free, as this would mean that no potentially harmful chemicals or solvents were used for extraction of caffeine from the coffee beans before roasting and grinding.
Can you Decaffeinate Coffee at Home?
The short answer is – yes, but only sort of. Not only is it a great deal more difficult to try decaffeinating coffee beans on your own, it is also difficult to estimate the exact percentage of caffeine that was eliminated from the beans, since you will most likely not have laboratory equipment at home.
Attempting decaffeination at home is laborious and time-consuming, not to forget that the results would be inconsistent at best. Try decaffeination only if you’re trying to slowly reduce your dependence on caffeine on a daily basis, and cannot find pre-decaffeinated coffee beans or grounds with ease.
Decaffeinating coffee at home involves 4 steps:
- Soaking – Decaffeination always starts with the green, unprocessed coffee beans. Since you might not have a commercial solvent or a coffee lab at home, the easiest way to strip the caffeine content is by soaking the beans in hot water, discarding the water and soaking again a few times.
- Roasting – The soaked beans need to be roast as per your preference, using a commercial coffee roasting machine you may have at home, or a simple cast iron pan.
- Grinding – Once the roast beans have sufficiently cooled, they can be ground in a burr grinder to medium or fine consistency.
- Brewing – The final step is to brew the coffee grounds using your preferred method, so you can relish a perfect-tasting decaf cuppa.
Please note that the coffee decaffeinated at home is likely to contain considerable percentage of caffeine even after multiple steeping rounds.
Is Formaldehyde Used to Decaffeinate Coffee?
No. Formaldehyde has never been used as a solvent for decaffeination of coffee beans. There have been rumors of formaldehyde residues found in decaf coffee, but neither FDA nor the several studies conducted ever found any evidence to support this allegation.
Is Decaffeinated Coffee Bad for you?
There is no solid evidence that suggests decaffeinated coffee is bad for your health. A strong reason behind this might be the fact that most decaf versions retain the antioxidant content in similar quantities as their regular coffee counterparts, which is why decafs may also present the same health benefits as regular coffee, minus the benefits of caffeine.
However, there are some health concerns in the cases where potent chemical solvents like methylene chloride and ethyl acetate are used in the decaffeination process. Researchers are concerned about where the decaf coffees manufactured using these solvents really retain the healthy compounds present in coffee, once the caffeine extraction is over. However, since the trace amounts of chemical solvents present in the final decaffeinated products have been found to be minimal, FDA has deemed them as safe.
Is Decaffeinated Coffee Better Than Regular Coffee?
The short answer is: not really! However, it also depends on what your needs and preferences are. If you’re looking for ways to break free from extreme dependence on caffeine, or suffer from insomnia, decaf could be the right choice for you.
On the other hand, if you do not suffer from any health conditions due to consumption of caffeine, then decaffeinated coffee option obviously does not hold much merit for you.
Caffeine – if consumed in the right quantity – does hold several health benefits, even if you keep the factors like instant mental stimulation, mood-boosting and greater productivity aside. Please note that since decaffeination is intended at removing the caffeine content alone and nothing else, most decafs should still contain the antioxidants like hydrocinnamic acids, polyphenols and other beneficial compounds usually present in coffee, albeit in lower quantities.
Health Benefits of Caffeine (and in Most Cases, Decaffeinated Coffee) Include:
- Safeguarding neurons in the brain and prevent the onset of diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimers.
- Prevention against cancer, obesity and diabetes 2.
- Improved performance in cognition-related tasks, therefore delayed age-related mental decline. However, decaf coffee will not render this benefit.
- Lowered mortality risks.
- Improved well-being and overall health due to lesser risk of conditions like inflammation, stress etc.
- Nearly 2.5% of daily recommended dosage of magnesium and vitamin B3, as well as 4.8% potassium. While this may not sound like much, every cup of coffee (regular or decaf) you relish quickly adds up to the nutrient intake.
Decaffeinated Coffee Side Effects
There aren’t many documented side effects of decaffeinated coffee that could significantly influence one’s choice. However, some of the noted side effects occur due to potential removal of antioxidant content of coffee along with caffeine, during the extraction process.
Also, for obvious reasons, opting for decaf coffee will deprive you of the benefits of caffeine like better mental functioning, improved athletic performance and reduced risk of fatigue and depression. Caffeine also reduces the risk of liver damage – a health benefit that a decaffeinated coffee brew cannot offer.
However, if you are determined to enjoy your decaffeinated coffee and leave the benefits of caffeine behind, you can rest assured that there are no major side effects of your choice. Make sure that you source your decaffeinated coffee grounds from a reputed brand that preferably used organic decaffeination methods, and that the caffeine content is really below the acceptable decaf standards.
Decaffeinated Coffee is Ideal for you if..
- You want to cut back on caffeine, for jitter-free days or better sleep.
- If you have a diagnosed condition of irritability, anxiety, nervousness, migraines, insomnia or high blood pressure.
- If you suffer from acid reflux, heartburn or digestion problems.
- If you are pregnant and have been advised by your gynecologist to limit or eliminate caffeine content.
Coffee is undoubtedly one of the healthiest beverages on Earth, given how it’s full of antioxidants and can potentially reduce the risk of several serious health conditions. However, the caffeine content in coffee poses problems for several individuals, which prevents them from consuming coffee. A decaffeinated coffee or decaf brew is the ideal solution for such individuals, as it still offers the other health benefits of coffee, minus the side effects of caffeine consumption.
In conclusion, researchers and health experts agree that the choice between regular coffee and decaffeinated coffee should not be a huge deal, health-wise. However, some decaffeination processes may end up unintentionally stripping away the helpful and healthy compounds in coffee as well, and not just caffeine. Shifting to decaffeinated coffee could be the right choice for you, but do remember to ensure that the decaf was processed in a safe, organic and solvent-free manner to be able to derive the maximum benefits from your cuppa.