Decaf coffee is a popular option for those who love the taste but don’t want the caffeine side effects. But how is caffeine removed from coffee? We set out to uncover the process behind decaffeination and, armed with this information, ask whether decaf coffee is good or bad
Caffeine is found in a range of foods including tea and chocolate, but coffee is the most widely consumed source.
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What is decaf coffee?
Simple: coffee without the caffeine.
Coffee aficionados may notice the difference in taste between regular and decaf coffee, but many don’t. The same beans are used for both regular and decaf coffee, but those on the road to decaf have their caffeine removed before any roasting or grounding takes place.
The end result is a nutritionally near-identical drink, but with ~2-3% of the caffeine. This reduces the total caffeine in a standard cup of coffee from around 80-100mg to just 2-4mg.
Thus, decaf coffee appeals to those who love coffee but don’t want the side effects of caffeine.
We all love a morning coffee, but is the decaf version doing you more harm than good?
But have you ever wondered how caffeine is removed from a coffee bean?
How is decaf coffee made?
The original process of decaffeination involved steaming coffee beans within various acids before using the solvent benzene to remove the caffeine. Benzene is a carcinogen, which is worrying because it’s formed in your body when Vitamin C is combined with sodium benzoate…which is found in ordinary sports nutrition.
What’s really astonishing is that the techniques described above are “mostly still used today”, says Chris Stemman, executive director of the British Coffee Foundation.
Nowadays, the decaffeination of coffee beans is performed by specialist companies (not the coffee producer or seller) and the fundamental process is generally the same for them all:
- The green bean is soaked in hot water
- The bean is then soaked in a solvent solution - usually either methylene chloride (a paint-stripper and degreasing agent) or ethyl acetate (a key ingredient in nail polish remover) – which extracts the caffeine
The chemical used in the decaffeination process are also used in paint stripper – this rings alarm bells for us
As ethyl acetate derives from fruits and vegetables, coffee companies are technically allowed to market their beans as ‘naturally decaffeinated’, despite having lingered in a solution better known for stripping nails of their paint.
This is a little like ‘natural flavouring’, which can use the word ‘natural’ because it’s derived from natural sources, regardless of the thousands of chemicals that are added to it.
Is decaf coffee bad for health?
Some argue that the amount of solvent that remains in decaffeinated coffee beans is so small that it poses such a small health issue.
However, it’s easy for the decaffeination process to raise red flags for coffee drinkers. After all, nobody in their right mind would consume an ingredient that’s been soaked in a solution whose real calling in life is to strip walls of their paint.
A bit like many sports nutrition ingredients that are also found in lube and cosmetics but still claim to be an elixir for athletic performance, can decaf coffee really be good for health when it’s manufactured using such methods?
For anyone in search of optimal health, why consume a food or drink that’s so highly processed and mixed with chemicals, particularly when there are viable alternatives
At this stage, it should be noted that food standards authorities around the world have deemed the use of methylene chloride and ethyl acetate as safe, due to the miniscule amounts left in the coffee afterwards.
But (without wanting to sound too cynical) let’s not presume that national food agencies are solely concerned with the population’s general health – there’s often other factors at play that dictate whether ingredients are given the green light or not.
Regular coffee benefits over decaf
Although decaf coffee all but eliminates the chances of jitters and sleep disruption, it clearly doesn’t deliver those benefits which are linked to caffeine, such as:
- Elevated mood
- Improved concentration, reaction time and mental function
- Lower RPE during high intensity exercise
- Increased metabolic rate and fat burning
Caffeine has a 6-hour half-life meaning that 50% of the caffeine from a coffee consumed at 3pm will still be in your system at 9pm, so keep consumption limited after noon and sleep won’t be disrupted. As we know, disrupted sleep messes with performance and recovery.
The decaf solution - the Swiss Water Method
If you’re like us and simply want to avoid normal decaf coffee, there is a solution. We’ve become huge fans of coffee decaffeinated by the Swiss Water Method.
The Swiss Water Method produces a wonderful decaffeinated bean – great for health, deeply flavoursome and environmentally friendly
This 100% chemical-free process utilises carbon to extract caffeine. Here’s how:
- Beans are soaked in hot water
- They are then soaked in Green Coffee Extract (GCE). GCE solution contains the water-soluble components of green coffee except for the caffeine and it’s this difference in concentration between the caffeinated bean and caffeine-free solution that, under pressure, causes the extraction of caffeine
- Once the GCE is saturated with caffeine, it’s percolated through carbon absorbers which draw the caffeine molecules from the solution
- The now caffeine-free solution is added back to the beans and the process is repeated until the original beans are 99.9% free from caffeine
It’s a laborious process, but we must say we’re mighty impressed. We’ve often found the flavour of decaf coffee to be lacking, but this stuff is incredible.
Decaffeinated coffee – the bottom line
Knowing how and when to use caffeine for athletic performance is important. It’s not a case of more is better, but once you’re in the habit of maximising the gains, we’d really recommend avoiding the normal decaf version.
If you love the taste, aroma and warmth of coffee and want a strong decaf option, source beans which have been decaffeinated using the Swiss Water Method instead.
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