Is Decaf Coffee Bad For You? Examining the Evidence

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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Decaffeinated coffee is pretty much the same as gluten-free bread or vegan food: suddenly everyone is into it because decaffeinated beans are supposedly healthier than their caffeinated cousins. But is decaf coffee bad for you actually?

Decaffeinated coffee is pretty much the same as gluten-free bread or vegan food: suddenly everyone is into it because decaffeinated beans are supposedly healthier than their caffeinated cousins. But is decaf coffee bad for you actually?

We have discussed several times that caffeine and regular coffee can have health benefits and drawbacks. Most notably, I investigated the relationship between caffeine and exercise.

Recently, I’ve been developing my own Coffeeness decaf coffee beans for fully automatic coffee makers and home espresso machines. So, I’ve decided to turn the whole thing around and ask what decaf coffee can – or can’t – do for your well-being. And I didn’t ask just anyone; I turned to science.

Health Benefits and Potential Risks of Decaf Coffee

PROS

  • High proportion of chlorogenic acid with many positive properties
  • No negative effects of caffeine (e.g. high blood pressure)
  • Specialty coffee roasts can hardly be distinguished from regular coffee
  • New decaffeination methods without any health concerns

CONS

  • Caffeine-free does not automatically mean more tolerable (coffee contains over 1,000 substances)
  • Rather unsuitable for “withdrawal” from habitually high caffeine intake
  • During decaffeination, beans always lose some flavor
  • Mass-produced decaf beans continue to be poor quality

Caffeine and Health: What Else Is in Decaf Coffee Beans?

Coffee consists of over 1,000 known substances, not all of which have been fully researched. Caffeine is the number one active ingredient, but it isn’t the only player on the field.

As a so-called adenosine receptor antagonist, caffeine blocks natural exhaustion and fatigue processes in the body. On the one hand, it increases alertness and concentration. Still, it also causes problems such as rapid heartbeat or high blood pressure.1

At the same time, coffee contains a high amount of chlorogenic acid (CGA). And this is particularly interesting (not only) in connection with decaffeinated coffee.

Plant Chemistry for Cell Protection: Chlorogenic Acid Instead of Caffeine?

White Coffee Direct Trade Mode

Chlorogenic acid is a polyphenol that occurs exclusively in plants, and is celebrated in the wellness and health industry as a so-called antioxidant. Up to eight percent of a raw coffee bean consists of CGA – depending on its origin, variety, processing method, etc.

The CGA concentration decreases as the roasting time increases, but a cup of regular coffee can still contain between 70 and 350 milligrams.2 When it comes to origin and typical roasting, light roasted coffee beans from Ethiopia have the highest CGA concentration.

The effect of chlorogenic acid as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory has been extensively studied.3 These two basic properties result in many benefits for the body:4

  • Cell protection and protection against “oxidative stress”

  • Binding and neutralizing various cell toxins

  • Better wound healing

  • Protection against cell mutations

  • Liver protection

  • Blood sugar regulation

  • Cardiovascular system protection

  • Regulation of body weight and metabolism

Caffeine content and chlorogenic acid are directly linked – literally. In fact, decaffeination processes only work because they dissolve the chlorogenic acid in the bean and remove the caffeine in a piggyback manner.

The good news: A typical 9-ounce (270 milliliter) cup of decaf coffee still has a CGA content of around 260 milligrams.5 That’s only around 15 percent less than comparable regular coffee.

The even better news: The majority of scientific research concludes that CGA has no toxic properties.6

However, coffee doesn’t just contain CGA. There are a whole range of compounds whose effects on the body haven’t been researched as thoroughly, or which don’t have as many desirable effects.7 

That’s why decaf coffee isn’t just a CGA bomb without the negative side effects of caffeine. Rather, it’s a complex of substances with over 1,000 components working together.8 

But the CGA content is one reason why decaf coffee is now considered so beneficial to health. Interestingly, it used to be the other way around.

It’s All in the Method: Which Decaffeinated Coffee Is Healthy or Unhealthy?

The health question surrounding decaf coffee has traditionally arisen less because of the ingredients, but rather because of the decaffeination methods. All are based on the same basic principle:

Raw coffee beans are treated with a solvent that removes caffeine. The decaf coffee beans are then cleaned and roasted. 

The term solvent doesn’t exactly sound natural or harmless – and when it comes to decaffeinated coffee, that impression was correct for a while.

The Roselius Process: Carcinogenic Warning

Arabica Coffee Beans

The original method for decaffeination relied on benzene as the solvent. Turns out, this Roselius procedure was actually poisonous. 

Even though benzene has a boiling point of 176 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius) and residues were (largely) removed during roasting, no one trusted the finished decaf coffee. Rightly so.

New Methods, Better Decaffeinated Coffee?

Although decaf coffee has never enjoyed the same status as classic beans, it has always been an important niche. That’s why we looked for (affordable) solvents that weren’t as problematic as benzene. We found several options:

  1. Direct process with dichloromethane

  2. Direct process with ethyl acetate (sugarcane process)

  3. Decaffeination with nitrogen

  4. Water containing caffeine as a solvent (Swiss Water Process)

  5. Decaffeination with carbon dioxide

Dichloromethane is also at least questionable in terms of health concerns, but has long been the industry’s decaf method of choice. 

This substance boils at below 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). And roasting takes place at significantly higher temperatures. Nevertheless, some people still have concerns – whether they are justified or not. All the other decaf coffee procedures are completely harmless – but in some cases uneconomical.

Does Decaf Coffee Have Health Benefits Now?

As it happens, we’ve been using the sugar cane process for our coffee beans. Ethyl acetate, a mixture of alcohol and acetic acid, is made from sugarcane cane molasses. It bonds with the chlorogenic acid in the coffee bean, which is naturally linked to the caffeine.

During the process, all of the ethyl acetate is removed from the beans, even if the natural ester is completely harmless.

Incidentally, if a manufacturer or roaster of decaf coffee beans doesn’t tell you about the process used, you can assume it’s the dichloromethane method. All other methods involve a lot of advertising and marketing.

Ultimately, there are no longer any unhealthy or questionable decaffeination methods being used today. Still, there’s a world of communication difference between “natural” processing with water, sugarcane or carbon dioxide and the use of toxic-sounding substances such as dichloromethane. And decaf coffee producers know this too.

High Blood Pressure, Heart palpitations, Pregnancy: Is Caffeine-Free Better?

Whether coffee is healthy or not has been debated pretty much since it’s been a thing. Still, as more information about the effects of caffeine becomes available, it becomes clear that:

  1. People react differently to the positive and negative effects

  2. Most people habitually consume too much caffeine

  3. These people in particular react more strongly to negative consequences

Pregnancy Coffee and Caffeine

For example, those who regularly drink (a lot) of coffee suffer from sleep problems more often than people who drink little9 – even if they aren’t drinking coffee before going to bed.

However, decaf coffee is not the direct route to quitting. On the contrary. Beyond a certain level of dependency, in many cases our brain cannot distinguish between regular and decaf.10

Interestingly, there is increasing evidence that one group of people should consume significantly less caffeine than previously assumed:

According to the latest information, pregnant and breastfeeding women should not only reduce their caffeine consumption, but do so drastically (possibly to less than 100 milligrams per day). And drinking decaf coffee can definitely help you quit.

Conclusion: Is Decaf Coffee Bad For You?

Just like a cup of joe doesn’t give you caffeine poisoning, decaf beans can’t automatically make you healthier. I mean, coffee isn’t an isolated drink. Instead, it’s embedded in a world in which many factors contribute to your health and well-being – or work against it.

However, decaf coffee is a great way to trick your brain and buffer any negative reactions or withdrawal symptoms when cutting down.

And, as always, I recommend buying only high-quality decaf coffee beans from small, independent roasters.

Is Decaf coffee bad for you in particular? What other health topics are you interested in? Feel free to leave me a comment!

Decaf Coffee FAQ

If you drink coffee and switch to brewed decaf coffee, you’ll likely notice a difference in complexity and flavor. 

Regular and decaf coffee both contain many substances that haven’t been thoroughly studied. Still, drinking decaf coffee can be beneficial for those who are sensitive to caffeine.

Depending on the decaffeination process, caffeine free coffee can contain trace amounts of toxic substances.

Everything should be consumed in moderation, so it’s likely that drinking a sensible amount of decaf coffee every day isn’t unhealthy.

Sources

  1. Ho et al. (2012) Nutritional Neuroscience: “Dietary supplementation with decaffeinated green coffee improves diet-induced insulin resistance and brain energy metabolism in mice” ↩︎
  2. Awwad et al. (2021) Molecules: “Quantification of Caffeine and Chlorogenic Acid in Green and Roasted Coffee Samples Using HPLC-DAD and Evaluation of the Effect of Degree of Roasting on Their Levels” ↩︎
  3. Tajik et al. (2017) European Journal of Nutrition: “The potential effects of chlorogenic acid, the main phenolic components in coffee, on health: a comprehensive review of the literature” ↩︎
  4. Farah & de Paula Lima (2019) Beverages: “Consumption of Chlorogenic Acids through Coffee and Health Implications” ↩︎
  5. Dijk et al. (2009) Diabetes Care: “Acute effects of decaffeinated coffee and the major coffee components chlorogenic acid and trigonelline on glucose tolerance” ↩︎
  6. Behne et al. (2023) Molecules: “Risk Assessment of Chlorogenic and Isochlorogenic Acids in Coffee By-Products” ↩︎
  7. Rune et al. (2023) Current Research in Food Science: “Acids in brewed coffees: Chemical composition and sensory threshold” ↩︎
  8. Farah & de Paula Lima (2019) Beverages: “Consumption of Chlorogenic Acids through Coffee and Health Implications” ↩︎
  9. Orbeta et al. (2006) The Journal of Adolescent Health: “High caffeine intake in adolescents: associations with difficulty sleeping and feeling tired in the morning” ↩︎
  10. Mills et al. (2023) Journal of Psychopharmacology: “Reduction in caffeine withdrawal after open-label decaffeinated coffee” ↩︎
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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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