Although coffee tastes great and can help you start your day, caffeine has several unhealthy side effects.

It increases stress levels and blood pressure, causes anxiety and insomnia, and can lead to dependency. Decaf coffee might seem like a good alternative, but is it truly caffeine free?

Decaf coffee has roughly 2 to 15 mg of caffeine per cup (237 ml). Therefore, it isn’t 100% decaf. However, the quantity of caffeine in decaf is relatively low compared to regular coffee, which contains about 95 mg.

Decaf might not be as healthy as you believe, and other good coffee alternatives exist.

Read on to learn why decaf coffee isn’t entirely caffeine-free and what you can drink instead.

Is decaf coffee truly caffeine-free?

Decaf coffee is not truly caffeine free. A cup (237 ml) of decaf has an average of two to five milligrams of caffeine. (Source)

That’s a smaller quantity of caffeine than the 80 to 100 milligrams in a regular coffee.

If you drink decaf coffee once a day, the small amount of caffeine might not even affect you.

But while five milligrams of caffeine doesn’t seem like much, it can add up if you have multiple servings.

Decaf coffee isn’t the best option if a caffeine-sensitive person is trying to stay away from caffeine.

Expecting decaf coffee not to have some caffeine is simply expecting a lot from coffee beans.

A batch of decaf coffee beans.
Decaf coffee beans

Like regular coffee drinks, decaf coffee comes from a natural coffee bean, and every coffee bean has at least six milligrams of caffeine.

We make decaf coffee by removing the caffeine from the coffee beans. But unfortunately, this process is not perfect; no decaffeination process can completely remove all the caffeine from the coffee beans.

Decaffeination methods

Many decaffeination processes are used to produce the best decaf coffees. Here are the four major methods of decaffeination:

  • Swiss water method
  • Carbon dioxide method
  • Indirect solvent method
  • Direct solvent method

Let’s explore each method and its level of effectiveness.

The Swiss water method

Over the last few years, the Swiss water method has become the most commonly used and effective decaffeination process.

It’s the best way to remove caffeine from beans while retaining flavor compounds.

Swiss water decaffeination is an organic process that applies the law and dynamics of osmosis.

The process starts by extracting caffeine from beans by soaking them in hot water.

After this, the beans go through an activated charcoal filter that absorbs the caffeine without taking away all the flavor compounds.

Swiss water decaffeination is considered the best method, but it’s still not 100 percent effective.

It removes about 99.9% of the caffeine, so the decaf coffee beans are left with 0.1%.

The carbon dioxide method

The carbon dioxide method is the newest and most expensive decaffeination process.

It involves extracting caffeine from beans with carbon dioxide.

When beans come in contact with carbon dioxide for a long time, the carbon dioxide draws the caffeine molecules and binds to them like a magnet, leaving the beans caffeine free.

So to have a decaffeinated coffee through the CO2 process, you must soak the coffee bean in a carbon dioxide solution for some time.

Although the carbon dioxide method doesn’t bind to all the caffeine, many still use it because it produces a cup of coffee with fewer byproducts.

It’s hard to determine the exact amount of caffeine removed through the CO2 method.

It depends on how long the beans stay in contact with the carbon dioxide solution.

The indirect solvent method

The indirect solvent method uses chemicals to remove caffeine from beans. It’s not as expensive as the carbon dioxide or Swiss water decaffeination processes.

However, it usually creates more byproducts.

To remove caffeine from beans using this process, you must soak them in hot water, then rinse them with solvent chemicals like ethyl acetate or methylene chloride.

Leave them to dry for some time, then roast them.

Dark roasted coffee beans.
Dark roasted coffee beans

The indirect solvent process takes away a lot of caffeine, leaving about 3% of the caffeine in the coffee bean.

The direct solvent method

Direct solvent decaf is similar to the indirect solvent process. The primary difference is that you soak the beans in the chemical solvent instead of just rinsing them.

Therefore, the beans have more direct contact with the chemical solvents.

Soaking the beans in a solvent will extract caffeine and other compounds. Then, you drain the beans to remove excess solvent.

Why the decaf process fails to produce 100% decaf coffee

Why don’t we leave the beans in carbon dioxide, hot water, or activated coals until all the caffeine evaporates?

The truth is decaf producers take the beans through different rounds of caffeine extraction.

But still, some stubborn milligrams of caffeine refuse to leave. It’s not an exact science, which prevents a 100% success rate.

The law of diminishing returns makes it impossible to extract all the caffeine. Basically, the first few rounds of caffeine extraction will yield the most results.

But as more rounds are performed, less and less caffeine is removed. Ultimately, some remaining caffeine molecules are inevitable.

As such, decaf coffee doesn’t have to be 100% decaf. According to the FDA, decaf coffee must be 97% caffeine-free to use the decaf label.

Non-caffeinated alternatives to decaf coffee

You must be disappointed knowing that decaf coffee still contains some milligrams of caffeine.

However, if you want a hot morning beverage, here are some tasty options that don’t have caffeine:

  • Herbal tea. Many herbal teas don’t contain caffeine. These include peppermint, ginger, hibiscus, and chamomile. However, you should still watch for blends containing green or black tea since these are caffeinated.
  • Chicory root. Chicory root drink is a good coffee alternative; you might even mistake its appearance for coffee. However, chicory drink comes from chicory plants. It has a nice flavor as well as health benefits.
  • Golden milk tea. Golden milk tea has of Indian origin; it’s a medicinal drink in India used to treat colds and congestion. Golden milk tea has zero caffeine; its primary ingredients include milk, turmeric, black pepper, and ground ginger. To enhance its taste, you can add other flavors, such as cinnamon or cloves.

FAQs about caffeine in decaf coffee

People are generally surprised to learn that decaf has caffeine. As such, they usually have follow-up questions about decaffeinated coffee.

Let’s look at some of the most commonly asked questions regarding this beverage.

Does decaf coffee give you an energy boost?

Decaf coffee doesn’t contain enough caffeine to boost your energy like a regular cup of coffee would.

However, if you drink a large amount of decaf, you might feel some of the effects of caffeine.

You’re less likely to feel these effects with coffees decaffeinated through the Swiss water method.

Is decaf coffee okay for pregnant women?

Decaf coffee is safe during pregnancy in moderate amounts. However, too much of it increases the risk of miscarriage and other health issues. It’s best to seek your doctor’s advice on how much decaf coffee is healthy for you to consume.

A 200 mg caffeine limit is generally recommended for pregnant women. To be on the safe side, you can limit yourself to two 1.5 cups (about 355 ml) of decaf drinks a day.

If you observe any side effects while taking decaf, report them to your doctor immediately.

Does decaf coffee have side effects?

Decaf coffee has side effects. Although decaf won’t give you the same energy boost, the small amount of caffeine and the acidic nature of decaf can have negative effects. The most common side effect is insomnia, and others include headaches, anxiety, and an upset stomach. (Source)

You will only experience side effects when you take decaf coffee frequently and in large quantities.

If you experience any of these side effects, you should stop consuming decaf coffee and report it to your doctor.

Decaf iced coffee, ready to drink.
Homemade decaf iced coffee

Is decaf coffee unhealthy?

Decaf is not unhealthy. Studies have shown that decaf coffee offers several health benefits, like lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes and preventing stroke and some types of cancer. It also contains antioxidants that can protect your cells. (Source)

Decaf can be healthier than regular coffee because it contains the health benefits of coffee beans without as much caffeine.

Caffeine is generally associated with the negative effects of coffee.

However, if you drink decaf coffee in large quantities, you will be consuming more caffeine, which can affect your health negatively.

Therefore, you have to be cautious of your intake of decaf, even though it has less caffeine than regular coffee.

Three espresso shots stacked on top of each other.

You can read this in-depth article if you want to check out the pros and cons of drinking coffee.

Conclusion

Decaf is not truly caffeine free. Most decaf coffees contain about three percent caffeine, a small quantity compared to regular coffees.

Even though there’s only a small amount of caffeine in decaf drinks, it can still cause negative health effects. This risk increases when consuming decaf in large quantities.

If you want a caffeine-free drink, consider alternatives like herbal tea, chicory root, and golden milk.

These drinks are caffeine free and healthy. Some of them even taste similar to coffee.

Learn more about coffee

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