Is Decaf Safe?

While research citing the many benefits of coffee has made headlines, there are still concerns as to whether excess caffeine is in our best interest. In my article, Coffee: The Good the Bad and the Ayurvedic Perspective, I listed research on both sides of the caffeine and coffee aisle.

Interestingly, the benefits of coffee were present in both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, suggesting the benefits are not attributable to the caffeine content, but to other properties of the plant itself.

Many folks, myself included, are either wary of the effect of excess caffeine on the nervous system or just do not tolerate caffeine well. For those who like the taste of coffee but do not handle caffeine, they drink “decaf.” But is it safe?

In this week’s article, find out if your decaf is, in fact, decaf; why it’s important to know how your decaf was processed and which processing method to opt for; and the Ayurvedic perspective on coffee’s mysterious cousin.

Is Your Decaf Actually Decaf?

First of all, it must be pointed out that ,while the FDA requires a beverage touted as decaf to be 97% caffeine free, drinking decaf can actually still add up to ingesting a bunch of caffeine.

An 8 ounce cup of regular coffee can anywhere from 85 to 190mg of caffeine. An 8 ounce cup of decaf can range from 8.6 to 13.6mg of caffeine. (1) A shot of decaf espresso can have as little as 3mg of caffeine and as much as 16mgs. So beware, if you are trying to avoid caffeine, drinking a double decaf latte can pack as much caffeine as a can of Coke! (1)

Not All Decafs Are Created Equal

decaf methods common caffeine levels image

When choosing a decaf, it’s important to inquire about the method that was used to extract the caffeine from the coffee beans. Choosing consciously can mean the difference between a clean product and one that is potentially laden with toxic chemicals.

There are four common decaffeination methods used today. I will list them in order of purity – not prevalence!

#1 – Most Pure:

Water Process – Can be sold as Organic Decaf – No Chemicals or Solvents

Water process decaffeination is when the beans are soaked in very hot water and the caffeine as well as flavors and other constituents are naturally extracted into solution. The caffeine, which is a larger molecule, is filtered out and the rest of the filtrate is re-introduced and dried into the coffee bean.

This is commonly called Swiss Water Process and is far and away the most natural and safe decaffeination process. Since there is nothing inorganic added to the beans, water processing is absolutely an organic process as long as organic beans are used. (4)

#2 – More Pure:

Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Extraction Method – Can be sold as Organic Decaf – No Chemicals or Solvents

This is a solvent-free extraction method that allows carbon dioxide (CO2) in a supercritical state (between a liquid and a gas) to selectively extract caffeine from a coffee bean. The beans are soaked in water and then, under very high pressure, CO2 is added. The CO2 acts like a magnet and pulls only the caffeine out of the saturated bean. The CO2 spares the aromatic and flavorful proteins and carbohydrates and only extracts the caffeine.

There are no residues or toxic by-products in this decaffeination method. In addition, CO2 is an organic substance of great purity, and in its supercritical state shows great promise as a replacement for toxic solvents across industries.

To date I have not seen any research citing risks with supercritical extracts. This is an organic process, meaning the product of supercritical extracts may rightfully be called organic as long as organic beans are used.

#3 – Less Pure:

Ethyl Acetate Method – Cannot Be Sold as Organic Decaf

Ethyl acetate (EA) is a solvent that in very small amounts occurs naturally in many fruits, and is even found in coffee beans. In this caffeine extraction method, first the beans are steamed for 30 minutes and then steamed in water and EA for about 10 hours, where the caffeine is extracted by the EA. The mixture is drained and the process repeated several times to complete the extraction process.

Because this solvent exists naturally in fruits and is considered safe by the FDA, it is commonly called the Natural Process, but is not so natural. That said, because getting the EA out of the fruits is such a complicated process, the EA that is used is typically synthetic. It’s important to note that after roasting the coffee beans the amount of solvent residue is typically well within the FDA safety limits.

decaf method coffee cherry tree image

High Dose Exposure Risks: Short-term exposure to high levels of ethyl acetate results first in irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, followed by headache, nausea, vomiting, sleepiness, and unconsciousness. Very high concentrations may cause a stupor, but it is relatively non-toxic (#EPA, 2007). Prolonged exposures may cause clouding of the eye, damage to the lungs, and heart, kidney and liver problems (#NPI). Its carcinogenic properties are not known. (2)

Note: Clearly, exposure in the form of decaf coffee processed using this method is nowhere close to these levels, but I thought it informative to know what exposure to higher levels of these solvents can do. Armed with the facts, you can choose how much exposure you feel comfortable with.

#4 – Least Pure:

Methylene Chloride Method (i.e. Dichloromethane-DCM) – Cannot Be Sold as Organic Decaf – Most Common

According to many experts, this decaffeination method produces the best tasting cup of decaf. The beans are boiled in water extracting the flavors and caffeine. The water extract is separated from the beans and mixed with methylene chloride solution where the caffeine is extracted. Then the beans and caffeine-free water are re-united, whereupon the beans reabsorb their flavor.

Methylene chloride vaporizes at 104 degrees Fahrenheit, which is exceeded by both roasting and brewing, allowing most decafs processed this way to stay well within FDA solvent residue standards.

High Dose Exposure Risks: According to the EPA, methylene chloride is predominantly used as a solvent. The acute (short-term) effects of methylene chloride inhalation in humans consist mainly of nervous system effects including decreased visual, auditory, and motor functions, but these effects are reversible once exposure ceases. The effects of chronic (long-term) exposure to methylene chloride suggest that the central nervous system (CNS) is a potential target in humans and animals. Human data are inconclusive regarding methylene chloride and cancer. Animal studies have shown increases in liver and lung cancer and benign mammary gland tumors following the inhalation of methylene chloride. (3)

Note: Clearly, exposure in the form of decaf coffee processed using this method is nowhere close to these levels, but I thought it informative to know what higher levels of the solvents used can do. Armed with the facts, you can choose how much exposure you feel comfortable with.

Choose Organic Decaf

While the FDA has established safe levels of these decaffeinating solvents, the only way to be sure you are not being exposed to any potentially harmful solvents is to buy organic decaf, which would have to be decaffeinated using the Swiss Water Process or a Supercritical extraction. Sadly, labeling which decaffeination method is used is not required. Thankfully, we can seek organic decaf or look for Swiss Water Methods (swisswater.com) or Supercritical extract products.

Generally coffee shops know how their decaf is extracted, so ask! Starbucks sells a water process decaf – their Sumatra Blend – but doesn’t use it for their over-the-counter decaf – so beware!

The Ayurvedic Perspective

Decaffeination makes coffee even more acidic, astringent and dehydrating because the beans have been pre-extracted, and therefore more likely to attract water in your body, which can dehydrate and irritate the gut.

Tip: Drink more water before and after all coffee consumption, particularly decaf.

Decaf coffee is also acidic than the already acidic coffee bean. This makes decaf more of a risk to drink on an empty stomach, as it can increase the possibility of excess stomach acid and irritation.

Tip: Drink coffee after a meal.

I have always been of the opinion that if you must drink coffee, either decaf or caff, to have it after a meal as a digestive aid. This way, the coffee will stimulate the digestive system more than the nervous system, which is what we want to avoid if we are to take good care of our nervous systems – a critical task in this hyper-stressed world.

decaf method espresso brewing iamge

Traditionally, coffee or espresso was a digestif, an after dinner drink to boost digestive strength in the same way that green tea is taken after a meal in parts of Asia. In my professional opinion, this is still the safest way to drink coffee and still preserve the health of the nervous system.

Coffee for the Doshas

Pitta body types with pitta digestion (acid issues or irritation of the intestinal wall issues) should avoid coffee altogether – decaf and caffeinated.

Vata types can have very sensitive nervous systems, making them extra sensitive to the effects of caffeine. Vata types tend towards sensitive digestion as well, and since the stimulation from caffeine can irritate the gut and cause digestive disturbances, vata types have to be careful not to overdo coffee, whether caff or decaf.

Kapha types, while they sometimes can benefit from a boost, can easily become addicted to the caffeine boost just like any body type.

Bottom Line

If you find yourself longing for a cup of coffee or needing it for energy, regular bowel movements or a brain boost then it might be time to quit. All of the above – energy, elimination, and clarity of mind – can be supported through other, more sustainable means that will not deplete the body’s reserves over time.

For more information on the pros and cons of coffee and the Ayurvedic perspective please read: Coffee, The Good, the Bad and The Ayurvedic Perspective.

References


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