All About Decaf
Coffee is America’s favorite beverage for many reasons– the taste, the social aspect, and for the energy boost it provides. But sometimes coffee drinkers may want to enjoy their brew without the caffeine that is naturally found in coffee.
While the majority of Americans prefer their brew with that burst of energy, NCA’s 2020 National Coffee Data Trends survey shows 9% of past-day coffee drinkers are drinking decaf.
Decaffeinated coffee: The beginning
In 1819, author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave coffee beans to German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, who was able to isolate and identify caffeine in coffee. It wasn’t until 1903 that German coffee importer Ludwig Roselius discovered that the caffeine had been removed from a coffee shipment that had been soaked in seawater. Mr. Roselius worked on commercializing a decaffeination process, and in 1905, patented the process. His first marketed decaf product eventually made it to the U.S. and was sold under a few brand names before becoming established as the classic Sanka coffee brand (Banks & McFadden, 2000).
Caffeine: What’s right for you?
Many coffee drinkers wonder how the caffeine in their cup affects their health. According to the NCA’s Coffee Claims 2019 report, 66% of consumers think it’s important to limit their caffeine intake -- so it’s clearly a question on the minds of many coffee drinkers.
Is there a such thing as too much caffeine?
Everybody is different – and every body is different. What’s right for you is determined by a complex interaction of genes, habits, and even hormones – so only you can decide what’s right for you. Check recommendations from recognized authorities, listen to your body, and of course, talk to your own medical professional to make your decision. As you think about caffeine, be mindful of other sources that may be in your diet -- whether other beverages, or even foods.
How much caffeine is in my coffee?
A typical cup of coffee has about 95 mg of caffeine per cup, although the amount can range from 75-165 mg; a cup of decaf has about 2 mg (and can also be in a range). The actual amount of caffeine in your coffee varies depending on the type of coffee (Arabica vs. Robusta), grind, preparation, type of coffee beverage you are drinking, and thoroughness of the decaffeination process. In the U.S., decaffeination typically removes 97% or more of the caffeine from the beans.
Decaf and health: As good as regular? Science says yes!
Several rigorous, independent studies (i.e., research that isn’t funded by the coffee industry) have been published by reputable journals and institutions to help us answer questions about decaffeinated coffee and health. These studies have shown that decaf coffee seems to offer the same health benefits as those found in “regular” coffee. Many of these are studies of groups of studies, meaning that similar conclusions have been found over and over by different researchers. Read for yourself, and learn more:
Studies on coffee, caffeine, and health
In a recent review of prospective studies on decaf coffee and health, the majority determined that drinking coffee, whether as decaf or with caffeine, was associated with a reduced risk of death.
- In a review of 21 prospective studies totaling over 10 million participants, drinking one cup of coffee per day was associated with a 3% reduced risk of death, and drinking 3 cups of coffee was associated with a 13% reduced risk of death.
- A study of nearly 500,000 participants found that drinking 3 cups of coffee, whether caffeinated or decaffeinated, was associated with a 12% reduced risk of death.
- In 2016, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) conducted a systematic and thorough study of all published literature and found no conclusive evidence for carcinogenicity of coffee.
- A meta-analysis of human prospective studies showed that drinking both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee was associated with reduced risk of liver cancer.
How is coffee decaffeinated?
Before coffee is roasted and acquires its dark color and familiar fragrance, it starts as a green, unroasted bean -- the fruit of coffee trees. As a first step in decaffeination, the green, unroasted coffee beans are warmed and steamed to expose the pores in the very dense, hard bean. The caffeine is then extracted from the beans in one of three ways: via a chemical solvent; with water, such as in the direct water method; or using carbon dioxide (CO2). All decaffeination happens at the “green” coffee bean stage—i.e., prior to roasting. Once the decaffeination is complete, coffee beans are dried and prepared for roasting or packaged and shipped to their final destination.
Decaffeination using water and supercritical CO2
- In the direct water method, green coffee beans are steamed, then processed using hot water and activated carbon filters to extract the caffeine from the beans.
- In the supercritical CO2 method, green coffee beans are steamed for a couple hours and then processed with water and carbon dioxide under high pressure and temperature.
Decaffeination using chemical solvents
There are two methods for using chemical solvents to decaffeinate coffee beans, which take place under strict guidelines of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To ensure that nearly all the solvents used have been removed from the final product, the FDA has set a residue limit on decaf coffee beans of up to 10 parts per million for all types of roasted decaf, including roasted decaf instant coffee.
- In the direct solvent method, green coffee beans are first steamed to soften their cell structure and increase humidity. Caffeine is then extracted by adding water to the beans, followed by organic solvents such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. The solvent is then drained and the beans are steamed to remove any solvent residue.
- In the indirect solvent method, green coffee beans are first soaked in hot water for a couple hours to transfer the caffeine from the bean to the water. The water is then drained, and an organic solvent (such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate) is added to the water to transfer the caffeine from the water to the solvent, which is then evaporated off. The beans are then washed, leaving no more residue than 10 parts per million.