What Is Decaf Coffee? Good or Bad? Health Benefits & Risks
Coffee is one of the most commonly drunk beverages in the world.
Although many people drink coffee to take advantage of the stimulant effect of caffeine, some people simply enjoy the taste.
Some coffee drinkers want to avoid caffeine altogether.
Decaf coffee can satisfy the needs of these individuals.
Decaf, or decaffeinated, coffee has had most of the caffeine removed.
The question is: Is it good for you?
Decaf Coffee Basics
Although you might think that decaf coffee has no caffeine, it may technically contain some.
In order to be considered decaf, the coffee must have at least 97% of its caffeine removed.
How exactly does that process work?
First, it’s important to understand how coffee beans are processed for regular coffee.
To make a consumable product from coffee beans, they must be roasted at temperatures greater than 200 degrees C (1).
Then, the beans are cooled.
They may be packaged, ground and packaged or turned into a different type of coffee product, such as instant coffee.
Roasting does not affect the caffeine content of the beans.
While instant coffee tends to have less caffeine than ground beans, a different process must be performed to make decaf coffee.
The various decaffeination methods are as follows:
- Solvent decaffeination
- Carbon dioxide decaffeination
- Water decaffeination
- Absorbent decaffeination
- Decaffeination of coffee extracts
- Microbial decaffeination
Most of these methods involve removing caffeine from the green coffee beans before they are roasted.
Direct solvent extraction involves steaming the beans to increase their moisture content and make it easier for the solvent to interact with the caffeine.
Then, the beans are treated with solvent to remove most of the caffeine.
Finally, the beans are heated to get rid of the extra moisture and solvent.
Indirect solvent extraction involves dissolving the caffeine by steeping the beans in hot water.
The resulting watery extract is then treated with solvent to remove the caffeine from it.
The compounds that add flavor to the coffee are added back into the beans from the extract, and the beans are rinsed to remove the solvents.
Trace amounts of solvents can remain in the beans when the direct solvent extraction method is used.
No solvent remains when the indirect solvent extraction method is used.
The decaffeination process usually removes some of the flavor from the beans, resulting in a milder taste and aroma (1).
Some people really note the difference. While the milder taste is preferable to some, others dislike it.
KEY POINT: To make decaf coffee, green coffee beans are treated before they are roasted.
With the commonly used solvent decaffeination method, trace amounts of solvents could remain in the coffee beans.
Decaf Coffee Contains Some Caffeine
Decaf coffee does contain small amounts of caffeine.
One cup of decaf coffee may contain about 3 mg of caffeine (2).
However, this amount varies. Decaf coffee may contain no caffeine or up to 7 mg (3).
Compare that to a cup of regular coffee, which typically contains 70 to 140 mg of caffeine (4).
These people may be more comfortable with the levels of caffeine in decaf than regular coffee.
KEY POINT: Decaf coffee contains small amounts of caffeine.
It typically contains less than 10% of the amount of caffeine that regular coffee has.
Decaf Coffee Has Antioxidant Properties
Even though coffee doesn’t seem like it’s packed with much of anything, it contains antioxidants and many nutrients.
Does decaf coffee contain the same antioxidants as regular coffee?
However, decaf coffee may contain up to 15% less (14).
That’s because some of the antioxidants are removed during the process of decaffeination.
Some of a fresh coffee bean’s specific types of antioxidants are lost when it is roasted to make any type of coffee (15).
Still, the overall antioxidant levels in a coffee bean may be enhanced during the roasting process as a result of the formation of several types of new antioxidant compounds.
Antioxidants are preserved more when the brews are kept at hotter temperatures (15).
To avoid losing more antioxidants if you drink decaf coffee, you may reconsider ordering it iced.
The bio-active antioxidant components in coffee are primarily the polyphenols chlorogenic acid, or CGA, caffeic acid and quinic acid (15).
Antioxidants can help stabilize free radicals, molecules that float through the body and attach themselves to healthy molecules.
Free radicals can cause molecular damage that can lead to disease (16).
Reducing this type of damage with antioxidants can improve your health.
KEY POINT: Both regular and decaf coffee contain antioxidants that help neutralize free radicals and protect against disease.
Decaf Coffee Contains Nutrients
Although it’s not considered a nutrient-dense food, decaf coffee does contain some nutrients that add up if you drink several cups a day.
An 8-oz. cup of brewed decaf coffee contains (19):
Also known as vitamin B3, niacin can help improve your heart and vascular health (20).
Potassium helps balance out sodium in the body, improving cellular communication and encouraging the elimination of toxins (21).
Manganese helps you maintain healthy bones and adequate iron levels. It can also reduce PMS symptoms (22).
While regular coffee contains more nutrients than decaf coffee, like pantothenic acid, riboflavin and thiamine, decaf still contains important nutritional compounds (24).
KEY POINT: Decaf coffee contains some nutrients that are beneficial to your health.
Drinking three to four cups a day can provide approximately 10% of the recommended daily value of niacin, magnesium, potassium and manganese.
Decaf Coffee May Have Health Benefits
In the past, researchers thought that coffee might be detrimental to human health.
However, some unhealthy behaviors that are sometimes associated with drinking coffee, like smoking and living a sedentary lifestyle, may have been to blame (25).
However, scientists are finding that drinking coffee has many health benefits (26).
The compounds in coffee that have been linked with health benefits are:
- Chlorogenic acid
Many controlled studies have not been done on decaffeinated coffee.
In addition, it is important to know whether people in a study used to drink caffeinated coffee or switched to decaf because of a health problem in order to do more effective research on decaf coffee.
However, decaf coffee does contain chlorogenic acid and micronutrients.
If these compounds in regular coffee are associated with health benefits, we can assume that the same compounds in decaf coffee may be linked with improved health.
KEY POINT: Many studies have found that coffee has health benefits.
However, this research hasn’t necessarily controlled for other factors or looked at decaf coffee.
Still, we can assume that the beneficial compounds in decaf have similar benefits as the same compounds in regular coffee.
Decaf Coffee May Reduce the Risk of Diabetes, Liver Problems and Premature Mortality
Researchers have found that the consumption of coffee is associated with a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Many studies have looked at the benefits of both decaf and regular coffee. Both types are linked to a reduced risk of diabetes.
With each additional cup of coffee that you drink each day, you lower your risk of diabetes.
When it comes to liver function, more studies have looked at regular coffee than decaf coffee.
One major study has found that decaf coffee drinkers have reduced liver enzyme levels.
This indicates that drinking decaf coffee may protect your liver from damage (32).
One study looked at the link between drinking coffee and decreased risk of death in many types of people.
The researchers found that decaf coffee drinkers had a slightly lower risk of death from all causes and cardiovascular disease (33).
KEY POINT: Drinking decaf coffee may lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, liver problems and premature death.
Decaf Coffee Might Help With Age-Related Cognitive Decline
Drinking regular or decaf coffee can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases (34).
Some researchers believe that the chlorogenic acid in coffee helps protect brain cells.
KEY POINT: Both decaf and regular coffee have been found to have benefits for protecting the brain against age-related decline.
Some studies have linked the protective effects to caffeine, but others have linked the benefits to chlorogenic acid, which is found in decaf as well as regular coffee.
Decaf Coffee May Help With Digestive Issues
Coffee is acidic. Therefore, people who drink coffee may complain about heartburn.
These individuals may experience less indigestion when they drink decaf coffee.
Many case-controlled studies have found a link between a lower risk of rectal cancer and high levels of coffee consumption (42).
People who drink predominantly decaf coffee have a significantly lower risk of developing rectal and colon cancers (43).
KEY POINT: Drinking decaf coffee as opposed to regular coffee can reduce acid reflux and lower your risk of colon and rectal cancers.
Does Decaf Have the Same Effects As Regular Coffee?
When it comes to health benefits like lowering the risk of many diseases, decaf coffee may be just as effective as regular coffee.
However, many people drink coffee because it contains caffeine. This stimulant has the ability to keep them awake and alert.
Regular coffee has some benefits that decaf lacks, including:
- Improved mental function and better mood (44, 45, 46)
- The ability to increase your metabolism and help your body burn fat (47, 48, 49)
- Better physical performance and reduced fatigue (50, 51, 52, 53)
- Lowered possibility of developing depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts in females (54, 55).
- Protection against cirrhosis and liver damage (56, 57, 58).
For more in-depth information, read my article "20 Health Benefits of Coffee."
KEY POINT: Regular coffee contains caffeine, which may provide additional health benefits that decaf doesn’t.
However, more studies have been conducted on the health benefits of caffeinated coffee than decaf.
Risk of Acrylamide in Decaf Coffee
Like regular coffee, drinking decaf coffee exposes you to a neurotoxin carcinogen called "acrylamide."
This is an understandable concern as drinking coffee is the most common route by which acrylamide is consumed (60).
The level of acrylamide varies in different coffee forms with coffee substitutes containing higher levels.
The good news is that the level of acrylamide in coffee is not high enough to pose a substantial health risk to humans (61).
For more detailed information on acrylamide and coffee, you can read my article, Acrylamide in Coffee: Cancer and Heart Disease Risk?
KEY POINT: Drinking decaf coffee exposes you to the neurotoxin carcinogen known as acrylamide.
The levels of acrylamide, however, does not warrant concern to human health.
Why Choose Decaf?
Different people handle caffeine differently.
Some people are more sensitive to its stimulant effects. Some develop a tolerance for caffeine more slowly.
Some individuals report feeling uncomfortably stimulated after drinking one cup of caffeinated coffee. Other people can tolerate several cups.
Some of the effects that come with drinking caffeine include:
- Digestive distress
- Heart palpitations
- Sleep disturbances
People who experience unwanted side effects from caffeine may wish to drink decaf instead.
Individuals who take medications that are contraindicated for use with caffeine may need to drink decaf if they still choose to consume coffee (3).
Experts recommend that pregnant and nursing women, children and teenagers limit their caffeine consumption.
KEY POINT: People who are sensitive to caffeine, are taking certain prescription medications or are pregnant or nursing may want to drink decaf instead of regular coffee.
This may also be the case for people who are sensitive to the stimulatory effects of caffeine.
Take Home Message
Coffee has more antioxidants than most fruits and vegetables.
If you drink coffee, you may lower your risk of many types of health conditions. You may even extend your lifespan.
If you can’t drink regular coffee because you don’t want to consume caffeine, you can still enjoy the beverage if it’s decaffeinated.
Decaf coffee is still good for your health, and it won’t cause the side effects that you may experience from caffeine.
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