October 30, 2014
Coffee mug surrounded by coffee beans

Decaf: A Healthy Choice?

by Berkeley Wellness  |  

Most people who drink decaffeinated coffee do so because it doesn’t make them jittery or keep them awake. But some believe it’s better for them than regular coffee—even though coffee has been cleared of nearly all health charges, and may actually be beneficial. Is decaf somehow healthier than regular coffee? Or does the decaffeination process itself represent a health risk? On the other hand, many Americans are drinking tea because they’ve heard how healthy it is. If they drink decaf tea, they may wonder, do they get the health benefits? Here are answers to these and other questions.

How much caffeine does decaf contain?

It must have at least 97 percent of the caffeine removed. That leaves about 5 milligrams, compared to the 100 to 150 milligrams in 6 ounces of brewed coffee. Tea starts with much less caffeine, so most decaf tea has even less caffeine than decaf coffee.

How is coffee or tea decaffeinated?

There are three methods to extract the caffeine: using organic chemical solvents (methylene chloride or ethyl acetate), carbon dioxide or the water method (also known as the Swiss Water method). Since ethyl acetate is derived from fruit, coffee de-caffeinated via this solvent is sometimes described as "natural" decaf. Some coffee or tea processors use different methods for their various products.

Is one type of decaf preferable?

No. Over the years there have been worries about decaf processed with methylene chloride because studies had found that this chemical caused cancer when inhaled by lab animals (which is why it was banned in hair sprays). But there was no carcinogenic effect when the animals drank the chemical. In any case, the residue in decaf is virtually nil, and there’s no evidence of any danger for humans drinking decaf. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the compound for use in decaffeination. Many companies, including Starbucks, use methylene chloride because consumers tend to prefer the taste compared to, say, water-filtered decaf, which usually tastes blander.

Does regular coffee pose any health risks?