Decaf coffee. Fact or fiction?
That was the question I found myself pondering the other day. It was late in the evening, so I decided to order one of my favorite roasts in the decaf version. My hope was that by drinking decaf coffee near bedtime I would still be able to sleep. Oddly enough, I was still a little bit buzzed by my coffee selection.
That left me puzzled. Was decaf coffee truly decaffeinated? Or was it tricky like those other beverages? The green teas of the world, who hide their caffeine behind all of their healthy goodness.
What Is Decaf Coffee & How Is Coffee Decaffeinated
I knew that decaf coffee went through some sort of a decaffeinating process. Maybe some caffeine, maybe more than I thought, remained? After a brief search, I realized I could not be the only asking this question. Nearly 1 billion pounds of decaf coffee are consumed worldwide each year!
I wondered if all of these people were awake too. Awake wondering if it was the decaf coffee that was keeping them up? I decided to march ahead and find out the answer to one of life’s great questions for all of us. How much, if any, caffeine is in decaf coffee? We know decaf coffee does not come from the decaf coffee tree. So there must be a decaffeinating process.
The big surprise was that the decaffeinating process has been around for a long time! The first processing of decaf coffee was in 1905. I assumed, incorrectly, that decaf coffee entered the scene with the health industry. Ludwig Roselius invented the decaffeinating process. I would bet he was a coffee lover.
There was one problem with the solvent Mr. Roselius used to remove caffeine from his coffee beans. He used benzene. I am sure we will forever be grateful to Mr. Roselius for his scientific achievement, but I am glad we have moved to other methods. Especially so since benzene is a solvent used in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries!
Is Decaf Coffee Safe?
Today, there are three decaffeinating processes used in making decaf coffee. None of these use benzene. Our methods now include water processing, direct solvent, and supercritical carbon dioxide decaffeination. That last one is not quite as hard to understand as it is to pronounce.
Water processing is the easiest to grasp. Water is used along with liquid coffee bean extracts as the solvent to remove caffeine from the beans. The coffee beans own extracts are actually used in the process to remove the caffeine and filter the beans. The water and extracts are then processed through a charcoal filter and the process is repeated with the filtered water and extract mix.
Since this process uses nature, not chemicals to essentially wash out the caffeine from the beans, the process is not an exact science. Results of decaffeination can be hard to measure. However, decaf coffee beans that come from the water extraction process are free of 94% to 96% of their caffeine.
The direct solvent decaffeinating method uses methylene chloride, coffee oil, or ethyl acetate to remove caffeine from coffee beans. No matter which of the three is used the process is the same. The solvent goes into the moist green beans, is mixed around, rinsed, and the beans are checked for caffeination.
This process repeats itself until the beans reach the desired level of decaffeination. Since these three solvents are more precise to work with, levels of caffeine in the coffee beans can be gauged more accurately. Decaf coffee that comes from direct solvent decaffeination is 96% to 97% free of caffeine.
How Is Decaf Coffee Made
Now for the most scientific method of making decaf coffee, supercritical carbon dioxide decaffeination. I promise that this one is not nearly as hard to understand as it may sound. Carbon Dioxide is used as the solvent in this method. We usually think of carbon dioxide as a gas.
However, when used in the decaffeination process, coffee beans and carbon dioxide are combined in a high-pressure chamber. This chamber creates such force that the carbon dioxide becomes dense like a liquid. The carbon dioxide interacts with the caffeine in the beans and essentially carries it off out of the chamber where it is deposited into a filter along the way. I am not into science, but even I think this is pretty cool.
What makes this process even cooler to me is that the carbon dioxide is used again after the caffeine is filtered out. This method has some big costs with it, but we do have an endless supply of carbon dioxide! Not to mention the carbon dioxide process produces the highest percentage of actual decaffeinated coffee of all the methods. Decaf coffee from this method is 96% to 98% percent caffeine free!
I was wrong. Or rather, I was onto something. There is no such thing as decaf coffee. Or at the very least, there are no decaffeination processes that produces 100% percent decaffeinated coffee. And, I had not gotten anywhere with my original overarching question.
How Much Caffeine Is In Decaf Coffee?
Like the decaffeination processes, I quickly learned this is not an easy question to answer. I started looking at all of the varying amounts of caffeine in decaf coffee and realized that I was missing a vital piece of information. It did me, nor you, any good to know how much actual caffeine is in a cup of decaf coffee if we do not know how much is in a regular cup.
There are approximately 100 milligrams of caffeine in a regular cup of coffee. This number can vary, but 100 milligrams will allow us a good solid comparison with decaf coffee. We know caffeine content in the decaffeination process varies widely. It naturally follows that the caffeine content in decaf coffee is no different.
The caffeine content in decaf coffee is all over the place. It changes from location to location and brew to brew. Researchers in one study found decaf drip coffees from coffee shops and restaurants varying from 8.6 milligrams to 13.9 milligrams.
What Is The Difference Between Decaf Coffee And Regular Coffee?
These same researchers found decaf espresso shots at one popular coffee chain ranging from 3 milligrams to almost 16 milligrams. The decaf coffee at that chain did not vary as much but did have 12 milligrams to 13.4 milligrams in the 16-ounce serving size. I know milligrams sound so small, but they can really add up. Especially when there is such a variation in how much caffeine is in decaf coffee, to begin with.
For example, drinking five cups of one kind of decaf coffee can equal the caffeine in one regular cup of coffee. While it may take drinking ten cups of another kind of decaf coffee to equal the caffeine in that same regular cup of coffee! You might wonder where I am going with this. Obviously decaf coffee does have caffeine in it.
The problem is that we will not always know how much. The decaffeination processes produce varied amounts. Different stores and restaurants have different amounts of caffeine in their decaf coffees.
I think all we can do is be mindful of why we are watching our caffeine intake if we are, and how much decaf coffee we are consuming. For those of us who do need to eliminate caffeine from our diets for health reasons, we need to talk to our doctors about coffee.
Is Decaf Coffee Good Or Bad For You?
If you want to cut back on your caffeine, try drinking some decaf coffee. Whatever you do, unless there you have a health restriction, it is not necessary to forgo decaf coffee or even coffee altogether. A healthy adult can safely drink about four cups of coffee a day or approximately 400 milligrams of caffeine.
How much caffeine is in decaf coffee? It varies. If you are sensitive, read labels, and listen to your body. If you are like me and have been staring at the ceiling a little too much at night, maybe take a break from the decaf past a certain time and see if it helps. I am going to give it a try.
I hope this article has been helpful. Have a great day and a restful night.
Hi my name is Larry, a coffee aficionado and passionate traveler from the US. I have already visited Colombia, Sumatra, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Jamaica in my pursuit of finding the best-tasting coffee beans that make you feel like you are in heaven. I currently write from Bali and enjoy the relaxed life that you can find only in Indonesia. Welcome to my coffee world!