So you want to cut back on coffee. Maybe it’s because you want a better night of sleep or jitter- and crash-free days, or perhaps you've even heard that coffee may cause cancer. (Don’t worry: That’s highly unlikely.)
No matter the reason, it’s not uncommon to consider cutting back. After all, we drink a lot of it. One study found that 64 percent of Americans drink a cup of coffee every day (the highest percentage to date), with another finding that Americans spend an average of $1,100 on coffee a year.
But breaking up is hard. And for every counterpoint, there seem to be countless health benefits to sipping the good stuff. If only a caffeine-free, coffee-like substitute existed… oh wait, it does.
What Is Decaf Coffee?
Decaffeinated coffee—known to most as “decaf”—isn’t just a regular coffee, it’s a cool coffee. (And by cool, we mean it cools it when it comes to caffeine.) But don’t let the name fool you. Though decaffeinated suggests that it’s devoid of caffeine, most decaf brews actually do contain some buzz. Just how much, exactly, can be a little unclear.
Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have strict regulations around decaf, it can be difficult to know exactly what you’re getting in each cup. Not to mention, the quality of the bean and processing methods can affect caffeine levels, which is why one brand of coffee may leave you feeling even-keeled while another sends you soaring through the roof.
What we do know is that the decaffeination process typically removes around 97 percent of the caffeine and that, on average, decaf coffee has 3 milligrams of caffeine per cup compared to the 85 milligrams in a regular cup of coffee—which is a considerable amount if you’re sensitive to caffeine.
How It’s Made
It’s believed that decaf coffee was discovered in the 1900s when a shipment of coffee beans was soaked in seawater during transit, which naturally extracted some of the caffeine. Shortly after, the merchant who happened upon the mishap recreated these magic beans using a chemical solvent called benzene, an ingredient that is a major component of gasoline and also found in volcanoes. (Talk about intense.)
The good news is: Decaffeinating coffee beans has gotten a lot safer and is no longer carcinogenic (bye, benzene). The less good news: Chemicals aren’t fully out of the picture.
The decaffeination process starts with unroasted beans (fun fact: the beans are green pre-roasting), which are initially soaked in water to dissolve the caffeine. Then, it can follow three primary methods.
- First up is the one with those pesky chemicals. Methylene chloride, which is used in paint removers (yikes), or ethyl acetate, which is used in glue and nail polish removers (double yikes), are used to remove the caffeine from the water by either adding them to the mix of coffee and water (the “direct” process) or by removing the water from the beans and then adding them to the water mixture (the “indirect” process). The final step is the same, which is evaporating the water so the flavor remains in the beans.
- Another method, called the Swiss Water Process, uses a charcoal filter to remove the caffeine from the water, making it 100-percent chemical-free.
- The third process also keeps things chemical-free by using liquid carbon dioxide to dissolve the caffeine.
Though the latter methods may sound preferable, the amount of chemicals remaining at the end of the first decaffeination method is minimal and has been deemed safe by the FDA. No matter your preference, since labels aren’t required to disclose the method used, it’s hard to say what you’re getting—unless you opt for organic, which is solvent-free.
So, Is Decaf Good for You?
Whether decaf or regular, coffee is high in antioxidants. And though decaf can have slightly lower amounts of those antioxidants, decaffeinated coffee isn’t devoid of the benefits. Whether gulping down caffeine-infused fire or a mellower brew, coffee may help prevent cancer and even type 2 diabetes.
But that’s not all. Decaf coffee has plenty of positive attributes, a few of which are due to its lower levels of caffeine:
- Decaf coffee consumption in one study showed a decreased risk of developing rectal cancer.
- A study on rats (yeah, we're waiting for the proof on humans) showed that rodents who were supplemented with coffee performed better in cognition-related tasks than those without, suggesting that coffee may reduce age-related mental decline—no matter the caffeine contents.
- Consumption of both decaf and caffeinated coffee has been shown to protect neurons in the brain and may help prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
- Decaf coffee may lower mortality thanks to its positive effect on risk factors like inflammation and depression.
But Is It *Better* for You?
Regular coffee certainly has a longer list of health benefits, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier. On one hand, there’s the argument that because caffeinated coffee is more widely studied, we know that much more about it, hence all those benefits. But there’s also another key consideration: those who don’t do well with caffeine.
Many sippers suffer from symptoms like acid reflux, heartburn, and general stomach discomfort after a cup of coffee. (Not the most pleasant way to start the day.) But because the decaffeination process can make the coffee milder, decaf may reduce these symptoms, making it a wiser choice for some.
Caffeine is also responsible for other less-than-stellar side effects, like anxiety, sleeplessness, high blood pressure, and fatigue (3 p.m. crash, we’re looking at you). It’s all too easy to forget that caffeine is a drug, and though not as addictive as some of the harder stuff, regular consumption can still lead to cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
Caffeine can also negatively affect certain medications. However, due to its minimal levels of caffeine, decaf is a much safer choice (though please consult your doctor if you have a medical condition that requires minimizing caffeine consumption).
When it comes to coffee, it depends on you and your body’s response to caffeine. If you don’t suffer from side effects, keep calm and coffee on. Just try to limit your caffeine consumption to 400 milligrams per day (3-4 cups, depending on strength).
If you prefer something milder—both in taste and experience—then opt for decaf. And if ingesting chemicals doesn’t sound all that appealing to you, look for the certified organic seal or ask your local coffee shop if they stock organic or know how their beans are processed.
The good news is, no matter your preference, you can still enjoy that heavenly taste of coffee. And ain’t that a thing of beauty.