Many pregnant women worry about the safety of caffeine and switch to decaffeinated coffee. But then they learn that a chemical called ethyl acetate was used to remove the caffeine and wonder if it's safe during pregnancy. While the available information indicates it's fine to enjoy a moderate amount of decaffeinated coffee during pregnancy, the best way to be sure it's safe for you is to talk with your physician.
Ethyl acetate is a colorless liquid that has a fruity odor and is responsible for the smell of fruits, such as bananas and pears. In addition to being a solvent that decaffeinates coffee, ethyl acetate is used to flavor foods, and it’s added to paints, glues, nail polish remover, printing inks and perfumes. Exposure to ethyl acetate vapors may bother your eyes, and it can irritate skin, but it’s not known to cause an allergic response. Potentially serious health problems occur at very high concentrations of the chemical that exceed those used commercially.
Coffee is decaffeinated with ethyl acetate by first immersing the green coffee beans in water, which softens the beans and dissolves the caffeine. The water now holds all the caffeine, so ethyl acetate is added to the water and the caffeine binds to the chemical. When the water is heated, the ethyl acetate steams off, taking the caffeine with it. Then the beans are put back in the water and they reabsorb moisture and coffee oils. This process is called indirect decaffeination because the beans don’t come into contact with the ethyl acetate. The end product is often labeled as “naturally decaffeinated.” Decaffeinated coffee beans must contain less than 0.1 percent of caffeine, according to the International Coffee Organization.
Coffee During Pregnancy
Caffeine is a well-known central nervous system stimulant that’s safe for most people as long as they don’t have more than 300 milligrams daily, according to University of Illinois. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends a moderate consumption of no more than 200 milligrams daily for pregnant women. One 8-ounce cup of decaffeinated coffee contains 9 to 12 milligrams, according to MayoClinic.com.
A study published in the December 2011 issue of the European Journal of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology concluded that caffeine intake of no more than 300 milligrams a day did not affect the pregnancy or the condition of the newborn baby. In the June 2010 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers concluded that consuming 540 milligrams or more of daily caffeine impaired the weight and length of newborn babies.
The effect of caffeine during pregnancy continues to be studied, but there aren’t any studies evaluating the effect of coffee that’s decaffeinated using ethyl acetate. In April 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, determined that ethyl acetate can be used safely as a food additive. However, the FDA also tests pharmaceuticals for their safe use during pregnancy and categorizes ethyl acetate as group C. This means that studies have shown an adverse effect in animals, but research has not been completed with people.
- International Coffee Organization: Caffeine
- Brigham Young University: Ethyl Acetate Material Safety Data Sheet
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Caffeine
- Lane Community College: Extraction of Caffeine from Coffee or Tea
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: Nutrition During Pregnancy
- European Journal of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology: Maternal Caffeine Intake and Its Effect on Pregnancy Outcomes
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Maternal Caffeine Intake From Coffee and Tea, Fetal Growth, and the Risks of Adverse Birth Outcomes
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Code of Federal Regulations
- MayoClinic.com: Caffeine Content for Coffee, Tea, Soda and More