Decaffeinated Coffee: Is it bad for you?

What caffeine is removed from coffee and what it means for your health?

decaf coffee


According to coffee legend, Ludwig Roselius, a German coffee merchant discovered decaf coffee in the early 1900s. He accidentally discovered it after his shipment of coffee beans had been soaked in seawater while being shipped. The natural extract of some of the caffeine was then naturally obtained.

Roselius patented the first commercially profitable method for decaffeinating Coffee coffee in 1994. Roselius’ method used more than just salt water. He also used benzene, a more powerful chemical solvent to finish the job.

Inhaled benzene, even in small amounts can cause headaches, drowsiness and dizziness. It can also cause irritation to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract. The long-term effects of benzene exposure in high doses have been linked to cancer, blood disorders and fetal development problems in pregnant mothers.

It’s no surprise that this new type was criticized for using toxic solvents in the later stages.

While coffee producers have switched to safer methods for decaffeination, some still use strong chemicals that strip out caffeine. Researchers are still unsure if any of the healthful compounds found in coffee have been lost with the caffeine.

Decaf is good for health. We spoke with experts like William D. Ristenpart, Ph.D. a professor of chemical engineer at the University of California Davis, and director of UC Davis Coffee Center to find out more.

How Decaffeination Works

There are three main methods to get rid of caffeine from regular coffee beans. The first is to use a chemical solvent, the second is liquid carbon dioxide (CO2), and the third is to use water.

You only need to take unroasted green coffee beans. Next, boil or steam them until the caffeine is dissolved or the pores are open. Then, extract the caffeine.

Both the CO2 and water methods are chemical-free. However, the solvent method uses synthetic chemicals like ethylacetate, which is naturally found in some fruits, and methylene chloride, which are common industrial chemicals used in adhesives and paints.

Ristenpart states that Swiss Water Process coffee tends to be the most flavorful. This is because it can remove caffeine without stripping the beans of other flavorful compounds. However, it can be more expensive and harder to produce at large scale. Ristenpart says it’s often found in higher-end coffees like Blue Bottle. (For the best beans, please see our coffee ratings.

None of these methods removes all caffeine from the bean. Even though the Food and Drug Administration requires at least 97.5% of caffeine to be removed from coffees, decaffeinated beverages can still contain between 3 and 12.

Are there any risks associated with decaffeinated coffee?

Experts agree that liquid carbon dioxide and the Swiss Water Process don’t pose any health hazards, but methylene chloride is still controversial in certain coffee circles.

Inhaled in small amounts can cause wheezing, coughing, and shortness in breath. It can also cause confusion, headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness in higher doses. In animals, it has been shown to cause lung and liver cancer.

The FDA determined that decaf coffee’s trace amounts were too small to have any adverse effects on your health in 1999. It is strictly limited to 0.001 percent of the final product, at 10 parts per million.

Sometimes, coffee producers will claim that decaffeinated beans with ethyl alcohol are naturally decaffeinated because the compound is naturally present in some produce. However, ethyl chloride is synthetically produced and can pose some health risks in high doses.

Ristenpart states that the bottom line is that solvents used in decaffeination are safer than ever and are usually found in small amounts on beans.

Which Decaf Should you Choose?

Experts agree that you should not be concerned about the chemicals involved in decaffeination. However, if you want to reduce your exposure to chemicals, it might be worth knowing which method of decaffeination was used on the bag.

Ristenpart suggests that this may prove more difficult than you think. There are no labeling requirements that require disclosure of exact coffee decaffeination.

“Consumers should be able to verify that synthetic solvents were not used to decaffeinate,” states Charlotte Vallaeys (Consumer Reports’ senior policy analyst, and food-label expert). This seal bans pesticides and chemical solvents used in processing.

If you aren’t sure if your beans are organic, inquire about the method used by your supplier. This can be done in person or by phone. There may be trace amounts of chemical residue if the beans were processed with solvents.

Decaffeinated coffee is as healthy as regular coffee?

Decaffeination is generally safe. The bigger question is whether it has the same health benefits of regular coffee.

Angela M. Zivkovic (Ph.D.), an assistant professor in nutrition at the University of California Davis, said that this is a difficult question to answer. We don’t have a definitive answer.

Researchers from Harvard published a 2014 meta-analysis in Diabetes Care, which found that people who consumed six cups of coffee daily had a 33% lower chance of developing type 2. Both regular and decaf coffees were at lower risk.

In 2008, another study in Annals of Internal Medicine found that regular coffee drinking was not associated to a higher chance of death from any cause. Decaf drinkers were also slightly less likely to die than regular coffee drinkers.

Zivkovic warns that such results should be interpreted with caution as “it is possible and likely that people choosing decaf also make other ‘healthy lifestyle choices.”

Basically, although some studies have suggested that decaffeinated coffee has health benefits, further research is required.

Decaffeinated coffee for you?

It’s not clear if it’s caffeine or one of the many biologically active compounds or antioxidants (which also appear to be present in decaf), but they could be the ones responsible for coffee’s health benefits.

However, it is clear that decaf may be a good option for those who suffer from insomnia, irritability headaches, nausea and jitters after drinking too much caffeine. Edward Giovannucci M.D., Ph.D. is a Harvard researcher and professor of nutrition, epidemiology and health at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.