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. Interestingly, the research shows 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 people, myself included, are either wary of the effect of excess caffeine on the nervous system or just do not tolerate caffeine well. Many people will choose to drink “decaf.” But is it safe?
To answer that question, it’s important to know how your decaf was processed and which processing method to opt for.
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.
- 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!
Not All Decafs Are Created Equal!
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:
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. This is commonly called Swiss Water Process and is far and away the most natural and safe decaffeination process.
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) 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.
There are no residues or toxic by-products in this decaffeination method. In addition, CO2 is an organic substance of great purity.
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.
Even though this solvent exists naturally in fruits, the EA that is used is typically synthetic.
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. Its carcinogenic properties are not yet known. This level of exposure may not be reached from simply drinking a few cups a day but its important to be aware of these factors as more research is conducted.
4 – Least Pure: Methylene Chloride Method (i.e. Dichloromethane-DCM, cannot be sold as organic decaf, most commonly used)
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.
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. 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.
Sadly, labeling of decaffeination method used is not required and although 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 by law has to be decaffeinated using the Swiss Water Process or a Supercritical extraction.
Source: Dr John Douillard Lifespa
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