The Dangers of Decaf Coffee

How many of you drink decaffeinated coffee and for what reasons? While I admit I have not researched the topic, off the top of my head, the predominant group would probably be pregnant women rather than health-conscious ‘freaks’ like me. We all know caffeine is a stimulant, a diuretic and also addictive. But I bet you didn’t know that caffeine has also been shown to raise cholesterol, worsen your insulin control, contribute to rheumatoid arthritis and stroke, damage your blood vessels, increase risk of heart disease, and contribute to miscarriage. Wow! That’s a lot of side effects for something that is so venerated in our society! Moderation is definitely the key when it comes to most things in life, including coffee, which is a hard thing to do when coffee is so addictive, but perhaps even better – gradually changing over to decaf coffee seems to be a healthier lifestyle choice. That way you will also have to look for healthier alternatives to the stimulant effect, such as getting more sleep, more exercise, eating better, and breathing better  in order to have more energy.

Decaf coffee does have some caffeine (less than 3%), so if you are anything like me, that is, if you drink a lot of decaf coffee plus also green and black tea, you may still be getting a significant amount of caffeine per day. Not to mention that black tea has more caffeine than regular coffee.

However, aside from the risks associated with caffeine and the pesticides used to grow coffee, many of us coffee lovers who do drink decaf coffee seem to not be aware of the dangers of the toxic chemicals used to extract caffeine. Alas, evidence points to this, as our most commercialized and most popular coffee joint on the West Coast, Starbucks, discontinued their one and only Swiss Water Process Decaffeinated Blend in the beginning of 2009. The rich and earthly blend, Komodo Dragon, was discontinued because, I quote Starbucks Customer Relations, ‘our other decaffeinated blends are more popular with our customers. Therefore, we decided to focus on those coffees.’

The most common chemical process used to decaffeinate coffee, direct extraction, uses direct soak of green coffee beans in a solution of water and a chemical solvent,  methylene chloride or ethyl acetate, which binds to caffeine and is then washed away.  This process is repeated several times until enough caffeine has come out of the beans. The allowed amount of chemical solvent in the final product is less than 10 PPM (parts per million) in the United States. Compare this to the fact that methylene chloride warnings concern situations and industries where people use the chemical directly, with over 25 PPM direct contact.  Makes you think twice about getting this stuff into your system, doesn’t it? It certainly should.

On the other hand, Swiss water process decaffeination uses just water.  While the process does take away some of the flavor, most of it is re-introduced by using water that has been fully saturated with the aromatic oils from the first batch of green coffee beans which is then discarded and the fully saturated water is used to extract the caffeine without absorbing any of the oils of the next coffee batches. Of course, the quality of the coffee beans you start with makes all the difference.  Next time you decide to have a decaf, if you don’t already do so, I urge you to try a good quality, organic, fair-trade blend. A few cafes such as Trees Organic serve good decaf blends. And you can always brew your own blend at home or at work. Did you read that right? Yes, at work too, although be prepared to have to share your precious brew with colleagues… And here’s a secret – Ethical Bean’s Dark Roast Decaf with its chocolate character beats Starbucks’ Komodo Dragon and most other organic decaf blends I’ve tried.  Once you try it a few times, you’ll have to agree with Oprah that it’s on the list of Favorite Things, whether you watch Oprah or not.

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