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Debunking the Myths of Decaffeinated Coffee

19 February 2020
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Among coffee lovers, especially those who rely on it for the caffeinated buzz it provides, decaf coffee is often looked down on. But is this decaffeinated discrimination deserved? Here, we’ll dig into the origins of common myths surrounding decaf coffee and whether there are any grounds of truth to them.

But first, let’s get into how decaf coffee is made. The main methods used to remove caffeine from coffee beans are: solvents such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate, activated charcoal filter, or liquid carbon dioxide. The coffee beans can then be roasted, ground and brewed like any other coffee.

Myth #1: There’s no caffeine at all in decaf coffee

coffee beans being roasted
For decaf coffee, the caffeine is removed before the coffee beans are roasted. Photo from Battlecreek Coffee Roasters

Let’s get the biggest misconception about decaf coffee out of the way. Decaf STILL contains caffeine. In order to be categorised as decaf, around 97 percent of the original caffeine content must be removed, so around 3 percent remains.

A standard cup of coffee contains between 70–140 milligrams of caffeine, whereas a cup of decaf coffee would have around 3 milligrams. This can sometimes be more or less, depending on the caffeine extraction process, brewing method, coffee bean variant or cup size.

While there’s a significant drop in caffeine content, that doesn’t mean you get a free pass to drink cup after cup of decaf coffee in one day with no side-effects. But it does reduce the hit.

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Myth #2: Decaf coffee is full of chemicals

When decaf coffee was first processed in the early 1900s, a strong chemical solvent known as benzene was used to extract the caffeine. Research has since found links between benzene and carcinogens, so this method is no longer used.

Over the years, safer methods have been discovered, such as ethyl acetate, a naturally-occuring solvent, and osmosis via activated charcoal filtration. The latter is often touted as one of the best chemical-free methods to extract caffeine.

In any case, food and safety standards ensure that decaffeinated coffee beans are safe for consumers.

Myth #3: Decaf coffee tastes weird

A lady in a hijab reading a book in a cafe
Decaf coffee still has the same good stuff as your regular cup o’ joe. Photo from Muhammad Haikal Sjukri

If you were given a cup of coffee without being told it was decaf, would you be able to tell the difference – or is it all just in your head? Decaf coffee tastes different from regular coffee because it’s processed differently, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

If the coffee beans went through gentle, natural methods to remove the caffeine, their taste won’t be too affected. For proponents of decaf, they say they prefer the milder taste.

For those of you who like your coffee iced, you’re less likely to be able to detect it due to dilution from melted ice. But if you’re looking for decaf that tastes the closest to regular coffee, robusta variants are more likely to retain their taste.

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Myth #4: Decaf coffee loses all the health benefits of regular coffee

a lady lifting a baby into the air
Pregnant women are advised to reduce their caffeine intake, and even for mothers who are breastfeeding. Photo from Dakota Corbin

People seem to have the impression that most of the health benefits derived from drinking coffee come from the caffeine it contains. But the antioxidant properties that are associated with coffee actually come from polyphenols like chlorogenic acid, which are still present in decaf coffee.

Polyphenols help the body fight against damage caused by exposure to harmful agents such as ultraviolet rays and radiation. This is thought to lower the risk for cancer and other illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease. Same as regular coffee, decaf also contains helpful minerals like potassium and magnesium.

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Myth #5: Only caffeine-sensitive people drink decaf

Those who are sensitive to caffeine probably make up the bulk of decaf coffee consumers, but they’re not the only ones. Those who are pregnant, nursing, or have heart conditions are often recommended to switch to decaf, and for some, they never make the change back to regular coffee.

Taking too much caffeine is said to overstimulate the central nervous system, which can cause restlessness, anxiety, digestive problems, or trouble sleeping. So decaf coffee allows people to enjoy the taste of coffee without some of the associated side-effects. If you’ve never tried decaf, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.

As the saying goes, “Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it!”