We all love and adore that morning cup of coffee. Whether it’s from the aroma of the bold, robust flavor or the ritual of making the coffee and grinding our own beans, it’s a nostalgic experience, one in which we seem to never get enough. Many people consume coffee for that pure caffeine rush, some prefer decaf coffee and other individuals consume coffee for its health benefits. Either way, coffee is one of those drinks that will stand the test of time as one of the most consumed beverage throughout the world.
Now the big question is whether we can still get many of the reported health benefits from consuming decaf coffee, especially if we’re sensitive to caffeine. The answer is yes! Decaf coffee nutrition offers many of the same health benefits as caffeinated coffee nutrition. What matters is the way in which decaf coffee is processed.
Below, I discuss the history of decaf coffee, its various extraction methods, the health benefits of decaf coffee and how to prepare decaf coffee. You may be surprised at just how powerful this decaffeinated version of your morning cup of joe can be for your health.
What Is Decaf Coffee?
What exactly is decaf coffee? Decaf coffee stands for decaffeinated coffee, of course. It’s coffee that has virtually all of the caffeine removed from it. The three processes that remove the caffeine from the coffee bean are through the extraction of water, solvent and/or carbon dioxide. As for which method is best, let’s take a look.
The two current methods of decaf coffee are the Swiss water method and carbon dioxide extraction method. The first process is called the Swiss water method. This method was invented in the 1970s. (1) It uses only water and osmosis to remove the caffeine from the coffee beans. The coffee beans are soaked for many hours in water, which helps draw out the caffeine. The next step in this process is that the caffeine-rich water is pretreated through a pretreated charcoal bed to remove the caffeine.
The carbon dioxide method is probably the healthiest method for caffeine removal because it’s able to remove caffeine without any harsh chemicals or solvents. Another benefit to the CO2 extraction method is that it tends to keep its infamous flavor profile and aroma. Both the Swiss water method and CO2 extraction method do lose some of the volatile coffee oils, but at the end of the day, they’re chemical-free, which is a big plus. (2)
Another rather interesting characteristic of decaf coffee is that technically it isn’t caffeine-free. So how much caffeine in decaf coffee is there? It contains roughly three milligrams of caffeine per cup. (3) This is quite low compared to a standard cup of coffee, which contains 80–120 milligrams of caffeine. (4) However, if you are very sensitive to caffeine, this small amount could still have an impact. And of course, you don’t want to overdo it with either regular or decaf coffee — or other caffeine products — in order to avoid caffeine overdose.
Is Decaf Coffee Good or Bad for Health?
This is a broad question with many factors to consider. One important factor is how sensitive you are to caffeine in general. To explore deeper, we all possess this specific enzyme called CYP1A2, which essentially dictates how well we metabolize caffeine. (5) For instance, if you metabolize caffeine more slowly, you will be impacted more intensely by caffeine than someone who metabolizes caffeine faster. How well you metabolize caffeine dictates how much caffeine you can consume and tolerate.
Another rather fascinating perspective to decaf coffee when compared to caffeinated coffee is that it won’t affect the chemical called adenosine in your nervous system. Adenosine helps modulate your sleeping and waking cycles. When you’re awake throughout the day, adenosine accumulates in the brain. As the day carries on, you begin to feel drowsy and sleepy, thus sending signals throughout our body that it’s time for rest and recovery. When you consume caffeine, it binds to adenosine receptors. This binding results in your brain not detecting adenosine, thus keeping brain activity engaged and alert. (6) This is why you hear how caffeine consumption can disrupt our circadian rhythms. (7)
Decaf coffee can be a wonderful option for individuals who are sensitive to caffeine. Depending on your sensitivity level, you may want to cycle your caffeine intake for hormonal reasons and/or give your adenosine receptors time to recalibrate.
We often hear that caffeine in coffee negatively impacts female hormones. However, in a recent 2016 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers conducted a study where they looked at the association between total caffeine and coffee intake and its relation to the severity of PMS symptoms. What the researchers discovered was that there was no elevation in PMS symptoms and breast tenderness with caffeine intake from coffee. (8)
One last aspect of decaf coffee to consider is that when it comes to coffee enemas, decaf coffee isn’t nearly as effective for the enema because the caffeine, theophylline and theobromine are what stimulate the relaxation of smooth muscles, causing dilation of blood vessels and bile ducts. (9)
With all the research surrounding coffee and its vast health benefits, the real question to ask is do the same health benefits apply to decaf coffee? The answer is yes!
1. Helps Lower Risk of Diabetes
In a recent study from the American Diabetes Association, researchers found that both caffeinated coffee and decaf coffee consumption was associated with a lower risk for diabetes. The study suggests that some of the components in both types of coffee, like lignans and chlorogenic acid, account for many beneficial glucose metabolism effects, as well as lessening oxidative stress in the body. Both regular black coffee and decaf coffee are rich in magnesium, which has been associated with a decreased risk for diabetes and improved cardiovascular and brain function. (10)
2. Protects the Liver
Another study, showcased the hepatoprotective benefits that coffee possess, regardless of caffeine content. Researchers noted that the coffee diterpenes and various oils, like cafestol and kahweol, seem to showcase protective effects against a certain toxin called aflatoxin, which negatively harms the liver. The cafestol and kahweol oils encourage the production of glutathione, which is a potent antioxidant that enhances liver function and boosts detoxification pathways in the body. (11)
3. Aids Cardiovascular Health
Another wonderful benefit to both decaf and caffeinated coffee is the positive impact on endothelial function. Endothelial function is critical to cardiovascular health, as it aids in modulating blood flow vasodilation and vasoconstriction, delivering the right amount of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout the body. A dysfunction in the endothelial tissue can lead to an increased risk for heart disease. (12)
However, scientists recently discovered that decaf coffee has less of a positive impact on endothelial function compared to caffeinated coffee in terms of the free radical-scavenging abilities. These researchers suspect this is because the caffeinated coffee hasn’t undergone any of decaffeination process, which tends to strip the coffee of some of its polyphenol content. (13)
Stemming beyond the antioxidant capacity of decaf coffee, it also contains a decent amount of certain minerals and vitamins like magnesium, calcium, iron, potassium, sodium and vitamin B3.
4. May Boost Brain Function
Another great highlight to coffee is its impact on brain cognition and psychomotor behavior. One study from Tufts University experimented on aged rats supplemented with a 0.55 percent coffee-pertaining diet. This is equivalent to 10 cups of coffee per day.
The researchers uncovered that the rats that ingested the 0.55 percent coffee-rich diet displayed better performance in the psychomotor testing and working memory task compared to aged rats fed the control diet. The benefits of caffeine didn’t necessarily account for the better performance in the coffee-rich diet group. This is in part due to the beneficial bioactive polyphenols present in coffee. (14)
Risks and Side Effects
The side effects associated with decaf coffee aren’t as well-studied. Most of the literature has only been done on caffeinated coffee. Stemming beyond caffeine, some of the common side effects pertaining to coffee are its effects on nutrient interactions and non-heme iron absorption.
Researchers discovered that for every one cup of coffee consumed, the risk factors for hip fractures increased. This higher hip fracture risk could pertain to how coffee decreases calcium absorption by roughly four to six milligrams of calcium loss per cup of coffee. (15)
Another area of concern, especially pertaining to females, is coffee’s ability to bind to non-heme iron, thus blunting the body’s ability from absorbing iron. (16) In fact, one cup of coffee lowers iron absorption from a hamburger meal by 39 percent.
One interesting side note is that consuming your coffee one hour before a meal shows no potential decrease in iron absorption, according to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (17)
How to Make Decaf Coffee
Here is a step-by-step process to make decaf coffee:
- Start with fresh filtered water for boiling purposes.
- As the water is coming to a boil, grind your decaf beans fresh.
- Bring water to a boil and let cool for a minute or two before pouring into the ground coffee. It’s best to pour the water temperature between 194 degrees Fahrenheit to 204.8 degrees F.
- A good guideline to follow is 10 grams of coffee per 180 milliliters of water.
- Let steep for 4–5 minutes, then pour into your favorite mug and enjoy.
How did decaffeinated coffee begin? Decaf originated from the German coffee merchant named Ludwig Roselius. One of his freight shipments of coffee beans had become damaged from the sea water. The sea water destroyed the caffeine content of the coffee bean with minimal impact on flavor. He later identified that the caffeine content had been virtually removed with very little impact on the taste of the coffee. This phenomena paved way for the creation of the first decaffeination method known as the “Roselius method,” which is no longer in use because of the carcinogenic chemical called benzene. (18)
- Decaf coffee is coffee that goes through an extraction process that removes most of the caffeine. There are several methods, but the best is the carbon dioxide method, which uses no chemicals.
- Due to going through the extraction processing, decaf coffee does lose some nutrition that regular coffee holds. However, decaf still provides many of the same benefits as regular coffee, even if some are to a lesser extent.
- For instance, both decaf and regular coffee help lower the risk of diabetes, protect the liver, aid heart health and improve brain function.
- There are downsides, however, such as decreases absorption of calcium of iron, along with still containing some caffeine, which can be an issue for people who are very sensitive to it. So be careful when consuming decaf, even though it has far less caffeine than regular coffee.