How Much Caffeine Is in Decaf Coffee?
Maryna Gray • October 21, 2021
Did you know caffeine is a natural means of pest control for coffee plants? It’s also been found to increase the efficacy of pollinators—honeybees! Coffee plants are self-pollinating, but bees are drawn to their fragrant white flowers. And just like us, bees receive a small “buzz” of caffeine through the pollen, exhibiting better memory and greater productivity for a short time following!
Caffeine is an essential component of coffee plants, which is why even decaffeinated coffee is never 100 percent caffeine-free. Why is this, and exactly how much caffeine is in decaf coffee? Can decaf coffee keep you awake? And what about decaf tea? Using our own coffee expertise, along with some insight from medical professionals, we've answered the most common questions around decaf coffee.
What Is Decaf Coffee?
Decaf coffee is regular coffee that’s gone through a process to remove as much of its caffeine as possible; these processes typically extract 95 to 97% of caffeine. Unfortunately, the caffeine-removal process can also remove compounds that give a coffee its sweetness, body and flavor. This is why it’s important to buy quality, specialty decaf coffee: if the coffee isn't good quality to begin with, it definitely won’t taste very good after being decaffeinated. However, there are a variety of modern and eco-friendly decaffeination methods that are designed to preserve the flavors of high-quality, specialty beans.
How Is Decaf Coffee Made?
According to legend, decaffeinated coffee was “discovered” when a batch of green (unroasted) coffee was submerged in salt water during an overseas journey. The first commercial decaf was invented in 1900, by a German named Ludwig Roselius; his company would later become known as Sanka.
Historically, decaffeination required subjecting beans to a bath in Benzene—a chemical that’s now recognized as a known carcinogen. This is why many consumers associate decaf coffee with unhealthy, or toxic, chemicals. Luckily, this technique is no longer used, and the FDA has strict standards around any chemical components used in the decaffeination process.
These days, most specialty coffees are decaffeinated with non-toxic, eco-friendly methods that retain flavor far better than the methods of the past. These methods mainly soak or steam the unroasted coffee beans until they become porous, and then use a natural solvent to extract the caffeine.
The three most common decaf methods in specialty coffee are Swiss Water, Mountain Water, and Sugar Cane Process.
Swiss Water and Mountain Water Decaf
Swiss Water and Mountain Water are very similar to one another. They involve soaking the beans in a water solution, which dissolves the caffeine (and other flavor components) into the water. The water is then passed through a filter that traps the caffeine molecules, but allows the other flavor compounds and oils to pass through. The beans are then reintroduced to the filtered water, and all of the non-caffeine compounds are absorbed back into the beans.
Sugar Cane Method (or Ethyl Acetate)
Ethyl Acetate (EA), also known as the Sugar Cane Method, is another specialty process for decaffeinating coffee. It’s popular in areas that grow and process sugar cane because it uses a byproduct from the sugars to produce a solvent that extracts caffeine from the coffee. Beans are steamed open and “rinsed” with a solution of water and Ethyl Acetate for a period of hours until the caffeine is mostly extracted.
None of these methods can extract all of the caffeine, which is why decaf coffee still contains a small amount of caffeine.
How Much Caffeine Is in Decaf Coffee?
So then how much caffeine is in decaf coffee? Since most roasting processes remove about 97 percent of the caffeine, you may see a cup containing 2 to 3mg of caffeine, instead of the usual 65 to 115 mg (depending on type of coffee and brew method). Overall, "the amount of caffeine in decaf coffee is dietetically insignificant," says Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FAND.
Will Decaf Coffee Keep Me Awake?
Certain people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. The older you are, the more sensitive to caffeine you are. Enjoying coffee with food helps mitigate the effects of too many refills, explains Ayoob. “However, most ‘normal’ people (that is, without health conditions that cause them to react to caffeine) won’t be affected by the small amount in a cup of decaf.”
As a general rule, caffeine’s effects peak after about an hour and stay in your body for about six hours. So as long as you avoid that after-dinner cup of Joe, you should be able to enjoy a cup of delicious decaf in the morning and sleep well when bedtime rolls around.
Is Decaf Coffee Bad for You?
No, thanks to these modern, non-toxic decaffeination methods. And beyond the decaf process, there's not much difference between caffeinated coffee and decaffeinated coffee since the antioxidant compounds are about the same. "The decaffeinating process will reduce the antioxidants and phenolic compounds by about 10 to 15 percent," says Ayoob. "But that still leaves A LOT of antioxidants available."
Also, research suggests there may be more benefits to decaf coffee than we know. "This study found that coffee polyphenols (the good compounds) had anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, but that caffeine could sometimes antagonize these benefits (e.g. the caffeine may have benefits, but also some potentially negative side effects, particularly on the cardiovascular system)," explains Ayoob. "They concluded that decaf coffee deserves more investigation for its potential benefits."
Is Decaf Coffee a Diuretic?
"Caffeine is a diuretic as it causes the body to make and excrete more urine by increasing blood flow to the kidneys," explains Lisa Richards, nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet. "Decaf coffee can have similar diuretic effects as regular coffee, just to a lesser degree."
Benefits of Decaf Coffee
While regular and decaf coffee provide many of the same health benefits, Richards and Ayoob agree that decaf coffee can provide its own unique health qualities for some individuals, such as those who can't tolerate coffee. "Some coffee consumers must moderate how much caffeine they take in for various reasons, so decaf coffee gives these individuals an alternative to fully caffeinated coffee," says Richards.
The Best Decaf Coffee Beans
Just like our selection of specialty coffees with caffeine, all of our decaf coffees are hand-curated and roasted fresh from the nation’s finest artisan roasters. Browse our freshly roasted selection of decaf coffee beans, or check out our Coffee Sampler (which is a great way to explore decaffeinated coffee and decide if it's right for you).
Does Decaf Tea Have Caffeine?
Just like coffee, tea plants contain caffeine as one of their natural components. This includes black, green, oolong, white, and pu’er teas. These teas can be decaffeinated through a process similar to coffee, where tea leaves are soaked in water and a solvent is used to extract the caffeine molecules. Herbal teas, however, are often made from non-tea plants, herbs, and extracts, which are naturally caffeine-free. And here’s another trick to get decaf tea: Make a cup of tea, dump it, and use the same tea bag a second time. You'll get almost all of the tea flavor and only a fraction of the caffeine.
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