One of the first things to come to mind when thinking of coffee is the near instant hit of energy – the feeling of being awake you get mere minutes after taking the first sip.
While caffeine is often regarded as a wonder drug, with few to no side effects, we do need to be aware of how much caffeine we’re consuming on a daily basis.
There are actually a few big drawbacks to caffeine. It can make it tough to sleep, or it can make you more prone to anxiety and mood swings. It can lead to high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular issues like arrhythmias and palpations.
Fortunately, decaf coffee provides a low-energy, safe, delicious alternative to its caffeinated counterpart, without having to sacrifice the delicious taste you love.
We’re going to take a look into how decaf coffee is made, and debunk some of the myths surrounding decaf coffee.
- Decaffeinated coffee still contains a small amount of caffeine, thus decaffeinated coffee is not technically caffeine-free.
- Today, decaffeinated coffee accounts for approximately 12% of total worldwide coffee consumption.
How is Decaf coffee made?
Caffeine naturally occurs in the coffee beans. It’s actually toxic to small bugs and animals, so the caffeine serves as a natural deterrent to harmful pest – stopping the plants being eaten!
Removing the caffeine is an industrial process. Once the beans are harvested, the caffeine has to be removed. There are 3 ways that this typically happens. In order to be considered decaf, a coffee bean has to have 97% of the caffeine removed.
Let’s have a look into the 3 different methods that can be used to decaffeinate coffee beans. Each have their own benefits and drawbacks as we explain below.
Chemical Decaffeination – The Indirect–Solvent Process
This is a popular, but controversial, way to decaffeinate coffee. By using a chemical like methylene dichloride, you can get rid of the caffeine in coffee. Some methods do this to the already brewed coffee, while others do it to the bean.
In this method. coffee beans are soaked in hot water for several hours. This extracts the caffeine but also pulls out other flavour compounds and oils from the beans.
The water is then separated and transferred to another tank where the beans are washed for about 10 hours with either methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. The molecules of the chemical solvent selectively bond with the molecules of caffeine and the resulting mixture is then heated to evaporate the solvent and caffeine.
Lastly, the beans are reintroduced to the liquid to reabsorb most of the coffee oils and flavour elements.
The Washed Method
This is one of the most popular ways for beans to be decaffeinated. It begins by soaking the beans in hot water in order to dissolve the caffeine. The water is then drawn off and passed through an activated charcoal filter. The porosity of this filter is sized to only capture larger caffeine molecules, while allowing smaller oil and flavour molecules to pass through it.
We are left with beans with no caffeine and no flavour, and a tank full of caffeine-free but flavoursome water.
The flavourless caffeine-free beans are then discarded, but the flavour rich water is reused to remove the caffeine from a fresh batch of coffee beans. Since this water already is saturated with flavour ingredients the flavours in this fresh batch can’t dissolve; only caffeine moves from the coffee beans to the water. So the result is decaffeination without a massive loss of flavour.
The problem with this method is up to half of the beans get wasted – making this a pretty expensive method for decaffeination. However, it’s one of only the methods that is completely chemical free.
The Pressurized C02 Method
In the CO2 decaffeination process, coffee beans are first soaked in water or steamed to make the coffee beans more permeable to the C02. They are then placed in an extraction vessel and filled with liquid C02 at around 1,000 psi to extract the caffeine.
The CO2 acts as the solvent to dissolve and draw the caffeine from the coffee beans, leaving the larger-molecule flavour components behind. It acts selectively on the caffeine, i.e., it releases the alkaloid and nothing else.
The caffeine laden CO2 is then transferred to another container called the absorption chamber. Here the pressure is released and the CO2 returns to its gaseous state, leaving the caffeine behind.
This process is chemical free which makes it an extremely popular way to decaffeinate coffee, however due to the expensive industrial equipment required, this process is primarily used to decaffeinate large quantities of commercial-grade coffee.
What Are The Drawbacks of Caffeine
Caffeine is generally regarded as a wonder drug. It has to ability to provide energy and mental sharpness in a matter of minutes, with little side-effect. It does however have its limits. Whether it’s messing with your sleep schedule, or it just stops working, caffeine in high doses starts to have drawbacks. If you’re experiencing any of the following side-effects it could be a good idea to limit yourself to one or two cups per day, or make the switch to decaf.
- and lethargy
- Mood issues
- Heart Palpitations and Arrhythmias
- Sleep trouble and insomnia
- High Blood Pressure
So Is Decaf Coffee Safe to Drink?
In short, yes. Decaf is perfectly safe.
Decaf coffee typically has 2-3% of the caffeine content of the original coffee beans. A typical cup of coffee may have 120mg of caffeine. The decaf equivalent will therefore contain around 3mg – a negligible amount.
It also has the same health benefits as consuming caffeinated coffee. It also has lower acid levels, plenty of antioxidants, and can preserve liver function and fight diabetes.
It is a popular misconception the chemical process used to decaffeinate the coffee beans leaves a harmful residue on the final product. The chemical in discussion here is dichloromethane (methylene dichloride), which some studies have linked to symptoms such as nausea, dizziness and even causing cancer. In these studies, the only adverse health effects were observed when inhaling large amounts of the chemical, which is far from possible with decaf coffee.
Decaf coffee has well below the maximum safe quantity of methylene dichloride. Decaf has less than 10 parts per million of the chemical, which is .001% of the actual coffee.
If you’re still concerned, there are other decaffeination methods that don’t use dichloromethane such as the washed and pressurization methods which are completely safe. You’ll need to however do a bit of digging to get this information from your coffee supplier.
Does Decaf taste bad?
No, it doesn’t. The process of stripping out the caffeine doesn’t’ touch the flavour causing compounds.
Caffeine itself does however have a bitter taste. This means, when you remove the caffeine you’re actually removing some of the bitterness from the coffee. If you particularly like strong, bitter tasting coffee, then you may want to switch to a stronger blend to compensate for the lack of bitterness from the caffeine. Or, if you’re like me and prefer less bitter aromatic coffee, then you may actually prefer the taste of decaf!
Why Should You Drink Decaf Coffee?
With all of the potential drawbacks of coffee, there’s plenty of reason to add decaf coffee to your cupboard. While some people may be worried about any chemicals used in the decaffeination process, or about the flavour, there’s nothing to fret. It’s safe, tastes great, and lets you add even more coffee into your life.
Apart from getting a good night’s sleep, there are also some important health benefits of decaf coffee such as it being packed full of nutrients, and cancer fighting antioxidants.
1. It Contains Cancer Fighting Antioxidants
Decaf coffee also contains the same antioxidants as regular coffee. That means that you will not miss the health benefits if you choose to have a decaf. It includes chlorogenic acid and polyphenols along with a plethora of nutrients. A cup of decaf contains magnesium, potassium, and niacin which helps with the recommended amount of these nutrients your body needs.
2. Fights Aging and Neurodegenerative Conditions
Regular and decaf coffee can prevent type 2 diabetes. It’s also known to do good with liver function as well as reducing premature death. It can also fight aging and the development of some neurodegenerative diseases. Some studies show that decaf coffee protects neurons from the brain. Therefore, it will avoid mental decline which is an age-related concern.
3. Avoid Heartburn and Rectal Cancer
Heartburn or also known as acid reflux can be avoided when you start drinking decaf coffee. It can also prevent the risk of developing rectal cancer by 48% if you drink two or more cups of decaf coffee. It’s a seamless way to avoid developing these health issues. So it’s safe to say that drinking decaffeinated coffee can do more good for your health.
The Bottom Line: Don’t Be Afraid to Drink Decaf
Despite the myths around chemical contamination and lack of ‘real’ coffee flavour, decaf is a perfectly safe, delicious, and actually has all the same health benefits of regular coffee!
By cutting back on the regularly caffeinated stuff, you can make sure to continue enjoying your favourite drink, and ensuring that caffeine rush when you do decide to have a cup of full-caf coffee.