Many people drink decaffeinated coffee because they like the taste of coffee without the jitters or it keeping them awake. Although it is a good alternative to caffeinated coffee. There is a lot of misinformation on the internet about the chemical compositions of decaffeinated coffee.
Is decaf coffee full of chemicals? First, it must be established that everything in this universe is made up of chemicals including our bodies and all the food that we ingest. The question is rather, are the chemicals in decaf coffee harmful to humans?
1. Chemicals Used in the Decaffeination Process
To understand the chemicals that are in decaf coffee we have to take a look at how decaf coffee is created. Coffee manufacturers will extract caffeine using organic chemical solvents called methylene chloride and ethyl acetate, carbon dioxide, activated charcoal, or what is called the water method (aka Swiss Water method as seen in the picture below).
Caffeine is water-soluble but using the water method alone is not preferable for all coffee manufacturers. Using water itself may remove sugar and proteins from the coffee beans, overall changing its health benefits and flavor. Using additional chemical compounds speeds up the decaffeination process while maintaining the non-caffeine compounds that create that great flavor.
Decaffeinated coffee that is labeled as “natural” tends to be decaffeinated through a process using ethyl acetate which comes naturally from fruit. Activated charcoal may be used to extract caffeine by running the beans through a bed of charcoal that has been pretreated with sucrose. The sucrose helps absorb the caffeine without taking the chemical compounds that create flavor.
1.1 Methylene Chloride: The Controversial Chemical
Methylene Chloride, which is a commonly used chemical solvent, tends to be controversial. Several studies from 2017 reviewing 201 meta-analyses of coffee consumption found that coffee consumption does not pose any harmful health effects. Also, that decaf coffee was similar in composition to regular coffee aside from the amount of caffeine.
However, consumers are still concerned about the use of methylene chloride as it was used in large quantities as an active ingredient in paint strippers before being banned from the EPA for such use. Inhaling 200 ppm (parts per million) was shown to temporarily slow down the central nervous system and affect a person’s hand and eye coordination, but this much methylene chloride is never used in the decaffeination process.
There were also previous studies conducted on lab rats that both inhaled and drank the substances. Those that inhaled the chemical developed cancer but it posed no carcinogenic effects on the rats that drank the substance. Lab rat experiments are purely exploratory and cannot be conclusively applied to human beings.
The FDA has very strict guidelines, especially compared to other countries. It has approved the compound for decaffeination under the condition the final product contains no more than 10 ppm or 0.001% residual methylene chloride. This little amount of methylene chloride does not have harmful effects on humans and should not be worried about. It is used in many popular coffee chains such as Starbucks because water-method only coffee beans have a bland taste.
2. Decaf Doesn’t Always Mean No Caffeine
Caffeine is not only a chemical but classified as a stimulant. The US Department of Agriculture states that the average decaf coffee contains 2mg. Some can also contain up to 15mg per 8oz cup. If you believe decaf coffee still contains too much caffeine, many decaf teas have less caffeine or none at all.
3. Is Decaf Coffee Healthy?
There are still few studies on decaffeinated coffee compared to regular coffee. We do know however that decaffeinated coffee has a similar structure to regular coffee. The Archives of Internal Medicine has several studies that suggest high intakes of regular and decaf coffee may reduce risks of Type 2 diabetes.
In a commonly referenced study that looked at consumers of regular coffee. It was concluded that there was a linkage between caffeine and heart disease. Today this study is refuted because many of the participants smoked and this was not taken into account because we did not know the harms of smoking that we do now. Unlike what was previously thought, coffee, whether decaffeinated or regular, is beneficial to your heart’s health. They also say studies have shown that it can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Which is an excellent source of antioxidants that protect cells from damage.
Coffee consumers should take caution when consuming coffee that contains a lot of sugar/creamers. This may negate the healthy effects over time, especially when exceeding your daily recommended caloric and sugar intake regularly.
Read Now: Can Black Coffee be Healthy Enough?
While there are more studies needed on the health benefits of decaf coffee. It is not any less harmful than regular coffee. The amount of methylene chloride used in decaffeination is not enough to pose a danger to your health and has been approved as safe by the FDA. Ultimately it comes down to preference, whether you want the energy effects of caffeine or not while craving the taste of a good cup of Jo. If you want a decaffeinated coffee that has a more robust flavor similar to a regular cup of coffee. You can look for one that has used a solvent process with either methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. That’s what makes the best decaf coffee.