Pro-decaf folks swear by decaffeinated brew as a stellar substitute for regular joe. Same great taste minus the jitters and stomach issues, right?
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But in order to strip caffeine from your cup, coffee beans need to undergo processing, often with potent, potentially dangerous chemicals.
Here, dietitians dish out the benefits and drawbacks of decaf coffee to help you decide if this brew is a healthy option for you.
Benefits of Decaf Coffee
1. It’s Safer for Sensitive Stomachs
And this makes decaf a safer option for people with sensitive stomachs as the acid can aggravate tummy troubles. Decaf is usually "better tolerated by folks who struggle with [gut-related] conditions such as heartburn or acid reflux," Polgreen says.
2. It's Less Damaging to Your Teeth
The reduced acidity in decaf coffee may also potentially protect your pearly whites against tooth erosion. That's because high-acid foods and drinks can deteriorate your tooth enamel (i.e., the hard surface of your teeth), according to the American Dental Association (ADA).
And this not only discolors your teeth (hi, yellowing), but it can also make you more susceptible to bad bacteria that cause cavities or infection, per the ADA. This can be particularly problematic if you're a regular coffee drinker who enjoys multiple cups a day.
3. It Has Less Caffeine
"While not completely caffeine-free, decaf coffee contains over 95 percent less caffeine than regular coffee," Polgreen says.
That means, after the decaffeination process, about 2 to 15 milligrams of caffeine will remain in your cup, says Leslie Langevin, RD, author of The Anti-Inflammatory Kitchen Cookbook and co-owner of Whole Health Nutrition.
And though many people drink coffee for its caffeine high, the stimulant may have a negative effect on others, including the following groups:
People with a caffeine sensitivity: For those who are especially sensitive to caffeine, even small amounts can cause jitteriness, restlessness and sleep problems, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Pregnant people. While you're pregnant, talk to your doctor about limiting caffeine to less than 200 milligrams per day, according to the Mayo Clinic. "Due to its very low caffeine content, decaf coffee is likely safe to consume in moderation during pregnancy," Polgreen says.
People with acid reflux: Caffeine increases acid production in the stomach, and this can worsen reflux and heartburn, according to the Cleveland Clinic. What's more, research has shown that caffeinated coffees can decrease lower esophageal sphincter pressure, which is associated with an increase in reflux symptoms, Langevin says. In other words, less caffeine in your cuppa can help curb reflux.
You Might Want to Drink Decaf If:
- You’re sensitive to caffeine
- You have gut issues like heartburn or acid reflux
- You’re pregnant
Disadvantages of Decaf Coffee
1. It Contains Questionable Chemicals
There are multiple methods to remove caffeine from coffee, and some of these procedures involve using chemical solvents, Langevin says.
In this type of decaffeination process, unroasted coffee beans are soaked in a mixture of water and chemical liquids to dissolve and extract caffeine, according to the National Coffee Association (NCA). Afterward, the beans are washed, steamed and roasted at temperatures high enough to evaporate most of these liquids.
But traces of these chemical solvents still stick around your cup. For example, methylene chloride (a solvent commonly applied in the decaffeination process) is also used in other industries including paint removal, degreasing, cleaning and manufacturing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Depending on the type and level of exposure, methylene chloride can cause serious side effects like drowsiness, dizziness, numbness, tingling limbs and nausea, per the CDC. It can also damage the eyes, skin, liver and heart and is even associated with cancer in high amounts.
While this all sounds very scary, Langevin says these solvents aren't found at dangerous levels in your daily cup of decaffeinated joe. That's because the chemicals used in the decaffeination process are strictly regulated by the FDA. So only minute amounts of chemical residue (no more than 10 parts per million) are allowed to remain in decaf coffee, she says. And these small quantities are generally recognized as safe.
But if you're still uncomfortable with the idea of chemically processed decaf coffee, you can always choose coffee brands that use non-chemical agents — like water, activated charcoal or supercritical carbon dioxide — to remove caffeine, Langevin says. We like Lavazza Decaf Ground Coffee ($7.89 per bag).
Decaf coffee is often made using beans with a higher fat content. These beans contain more natural oils called diterpenes that can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, Langevin says.
Thing is, high cholesterol levels are related to a greater risk for heart disease and stroke, according to the CDC. So if you have a history of heart issues, you may want to ditch (or limit) the decaf.
You can also decrease diterpenes in your decaf brew (and reduce the effect on cholesterol) by choosing filtered varieties like drip coffee and foregoing unfiltered kinds like French press, Langevin says.
For reference, one cup of filtered coffee contains 30 times fewer diterpenes than the same amount of an unfiltered brew, per Harvard Health Publishing.
Still, for most people, drinking decaf in moderation — that's less than 4 cups per day — can be protective for heart health due to the anti-inflammatory antioxidants it contains, Langevin says.
3. It Has Fewer Bioactive Compounds
Not only does the decaffeination process remove caffeine, but it also eliminates other healthy bioactive compounds.
Found in certain foods (including coffee beans), bioactive compounds are chemicals that support overall health and are linked to lower risks of diseases like cancer and heart disease, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). For instance, antioxidants, or substances that help fight cell damage in the body, are considered bioactive compounds.
During the decaffeination process, some antioxidants are stripped, Langevin says. That being said, decaf is still a solid source of antioxidant activity, she adds.
Which Is Healthier: Decaf or Regular Coffee?
It really depends on your preference and specific situation. "Both are healthy options," Langevin says.
Regular and decaf coffee supply ample antioxidants and offer similar health benefits, such as heart health and a reduced risk of some cancers, she says.
Polgreen is a bit more partial to caffeinated coffee: "While research has shown decaf coffee to be nutritionally similar to regular coffee, regular coffee contains higher levels of antioxidants and has been linked to better cognitive and metabolic effects (not to mention that pivotal morning boost)."
So, Is Drinking Decaf Coffee Bad for You?
If you're watching your cholesterol levels or simply prefer less processed coffee products, decaf may not be the best option for you. But, overall, this type of brew boasts similar health benefits as regular coffee.
And as previously mentioned, decaf can be an outstanding option for many, including those with a caffeine sensitivity or acid reflux and pregnant people.
So, to decaf or not to decaf? The choice is yours.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Cholesterol”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “What’s the healthiest way to brew coffee?”
- National Institutes of Health: “Bioactive compound”
- American Dental Association:” Erosion: What You Eat and Drink Can Impact Teeth”
- Mayo Clinic: “Caffeine: How much is too much?”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Why Does Coffee Bother My Stomach?”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Methylene Chloride”
- National Coffee Association: “All About Decaffeinated Coffee”