Is Decaffeinated Coffee Safe?

cup of coffee with question marks
Coffee beans

Drinking coffee is how a lot of people like to begin their day, and many treasure the caffeine content. Others, however, like the flavor but don’t like the caffeine, in which case they may turn to decaffeinated coffee. Decaffeinated coffee is required to have 97% of its caffeine removed to conform to FDA standards. Typically decaf has 2-5 mg of caffeine per serving, as compared to 50-75 mg of caffeine in a serving of regular coffee.

Methods used in the past included chemicals that have been proven to be carcinogens, such as benzene, but those chemicals are no longer used in caffeine extraction. Now, the difficult part of decaffeinating coffee is removing the caffeine while leaving the flavor compounds in place. It can be tricky to find a tasty decaf coffee because the wide variety of flavor compounds is what give coffee its rich flavor.

When considering whether to go decaf, it may be helpful to note which of the following three decaffeination methods was used on your coffee beans.

  1. Organic chemical solvents – methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. This method is considered by some to produce very flavorful coffee. Methylene chloride is a chemical that is a commonly-used solvent. It is highly volatile and therefore it’s estimated that very little remains in the beans after the heat-intensive roasting process is complete. The FDA has determined any potential health risk to be so low as to be essentially non-existent. Ethyl acetate is considered more “natural” than methylene chloride by some, because it can be found in nature, exists in several natural products and contributes to the aroma of many fruits. This method is often labeled as “naturally decaffeinated,” though the chemical actually used is synthetic, not naturally derived. In short, both of the solvents used in this process are synthetic, leave very little residue in the beans and are unlikely to cause harm. But if you prefer to avoid chemicals in your daily life, these organic chemical solvents might be something to sidestep.
  2. Carbon dioxide. This method uses liquid carbon dioxide in place of chemical solvents. It is a costly method and is primarily used to decaffeinate large quantities of coffee such as those you would find in grocery stores. It is very efficient at extracting caffeine and leaves very little residue behind.
  3. Swiss water method. In this method water is used to extract caffeine from coffee. Coffee decaffeinated by this method is labeled “Swiss Water Decaf” and is almost exclusively used for decaffeination of organic coffee. It is the least efficient at removing caffeine, and coffee decaffeinated by this method is likely to have higher caffeine levels than other methods. It is very safe, as it doesn’t involve any chemicals — and since it removes very few of the compounds that create flavor, it is considered by some to have the best flavor profile.

There is some preliminary evidence that high intake of decaf coffee may increase the risk of having high apolipoprotein B, a marker in your blood that is associated with worse cardiovascular health. The issue is still under discussion, however, and it is unlikely that a few cups a day will have negative effects. So while decaffeinated coffee may not taste as good as regular coffee, it is generally a good option for those who want their coffee without the caffeine.



— By Shawnti Rockwell, ND (’14), resident at Bastyr Center for Natural Health


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