Science & Environment


If you think that decaf coffee doesn’t have caffeine in it then think again; here’s the truth about decaf coffee beans.

Lots of people love the taste of coffee, but not all of them can handle the caffeine in it. If that sounds like you, then decaf seems like the most obvious choice. You try out the decaf setting on your latte machine only to discover that you still respond the same. You might be wondering if these decaf coffee beans have some caffeine in them after all.

How Much Caffeine is in Regular Coffee?

Before assessing the caffeine content of decaf coffee, it’s worth understanding how much caffeine is in average coffee sachets. A standard 8oz cup of coffee has between 95 and 165mg of caffeine. Exactly how much caffeine is in there can depend on the variety of coffee and how long it was brewed for.

Just about the only thing that doesn’t affect caffeine content is the color of the beans. Dark roast beans have more caffeine by weight because they are bigger, but light blends make up for that by having more caffeine by volume. People compensate for the smaller size of light beans by using more, resulting in the same amount of caffeine.

What Does it Matter?

It’s important to consider caffeine content because some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. Caffeine has some benefits, but it also causes things like an increased heart rate. While a faster heart rate would be uncomfortable for most, it can become a serious problem for heart patients because it puts so much stress on their system.

Caffeine can also cause unpleasant headaches. It may also affect the quality of one’s voice, which could be a problem for people who rely on their voices such as singers and actors. There are many valid reasons to choose decaf coffee over regular coffee like an espresso.

One problem with coffee is a single cup is all you need. It takes around 45 minutes for caffeine to get to work because it is absorbed so quickly. You’ll quickly be able to tell if you are sensitive to caffeine because the change is so fast it couldn’t be anything else.

So, What is Decaf Coffee?

Decaf coffee, contrary to popular belief, still contains trace amounts of caffeine. Like coffee, it is regulated by the FDA because of this. To qualify as being true decaf coffee beans, they must have at least 97% of their caffeine content removed. There are a few different ways to go about removing caffeine, but everything begins with unroasted green coffee beans.

Coffee by itself is very complex. It has over 1,000 different chemicals in it. Eliminating the caffeine from that mix involves washing the beans with a solvent that targets caffeine, such as ethyl acetate. Coffee beans will be rinsed several times to thoroughly process the caffeine. You might think that would dilute the flavor.

It’s true that coffee, being water-soluble, must lose some flavor from the rinsing process. The problem with using other methods is that some of them have carcinogenic properties. The FDA is aware of this though and they monitor the process carefully to make sure there is no risk.

With all that said, decaf coffee has a practically negligible amount of caffeine in it. It shouldn’t pose any kind of human health risk. There’s no need to worry about how the caffeine from your decaf coffee beans was removed.

An Alternative Method to Remove Caffeine

If you’re still worried about what putting decaf beans in your filter coffee machine could do to your health, then you’ll be pleased to hear there are alternatives. One of the best is the Swiss Water method. This method uses GCE – Green Coffee Extract – instead of solvents to remove caffeine. It eliminates the coffee through natural osmosis.

The extract works to capture caffeine from green coffee beans through equilibrium. It establishes a balance in caffeine content between the actual beans and the GCE. The GCE used in the process is refreshed every so often until 99.9% of the caffeine has been removed. The process takes a total of around 10 hours to complete.

Once the process is complete, the newly decaf coffee beans can be roasted just like any other kind of coffee bean. This method is preferable because it is driven by natural forces rather than chemicals. It also offers a significant saving to the manufacturer that make it worth it for them too.

The Decaf Problem

There’s one big problem with decaf though. The FDA might regulate decaf coffee as much as regular coffee, but they don’t require that manufacturers label their decaf products with the amount of caffeine present. There’s no telling just how much caffeine is actually in the product.

A study from the University of Florida offered some interesting results about how much caffeine is really in decaf companies. Researchers tested decaffeinated espresso and decaffeinated coffee drinks from Starbucks to determine how much caffeine was present in the drinks.

They discovered that the caffeine content varied between 3.0 and 15.8mg per shot of coffee in the espressos. The standard decaf coffee came in at between 12.0mg and 13.4mg of caffeine per 16oz serving. This doesn’t sound like a lot of caffeine, but that can still be a lot for someone who is sensitive to caffeine, particularly if there are health concerns related to their sensitivity.

Is Decaf Coffee Worth the Trouble?

You might be wondering if decaf coffee really is free from caffeine. The reality is that it doesn’t matter how the caffeine is removed, there is likely going to be some trace amounts of caffeine. Before making the choice to switch to something else though, consider the options. Black tea, for example, has about half as much caffeine as a regular cup of brewed coffee.

Caffeinated soft drinks have about as much caffeine as coffee and have more calories to them too. Unsweetened decaf coffee has zero calories to it, while a 12-oz Cola has 150 calories. If you want to avoid caffeine for health purposes, the calorie content of alternatives is something else to consider.

If you were to add sugar to the mix then the situation becomes a lot more complicated. That’s why you should always consider the full picture rather than just focusing on caffeine content.

The Bottom Line

The truth about decaf coffee beans is that they still have trace amounts of caffeine. How much caffeine they have depends on where the beans come from and how they were decaffeinated. The best thing to do if you want a decaf coffee is find beans that have the right concentration and then brew them yourself.

Calling any kind of coffee “decaf” is a little misleading. The term implies that there’s no caffeine at all. Even regulated coffee has some trace amounts of the stuff though. Whether or not you drink decaf coffee depends on why you want to avoid caffeine and if you have any health reactions to it.