What is Decaf Coffee?
Before we get on to decaffeinated coffee (or ‘decaf’ as we call it for short), perhaps the first question to ask is ‘what is caffeine?’
What is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a fascinating substance – on the one hand, it is a bitter, white alkaloid and, on the other, it is a stimulant drug that has been used for millennia. Caffeine can be found in the leaves, seeds and fruit of a number of plants, notably coffee and tea, but also guayusa, yerba mate and guarana. Nature always has its reasons. In this case, the caffeine exists in these plants to act as a natural pesticide that paralyses or even kills insects that would prey on the plants. It also helps the bees remember where they pollinated.
There are 2 types of coffee, Arabica and Robusta, which have differing amounts of caffeine in them. Arabica is the better quality coffee (all Decadent Decaf coffees are Arabica), grown at higher altitudes and has half the caffeine of Robusta. Robusta is a lesser quality coffee (mainly used for freeze dried coffee and cheap blends), grown at sea level lowlands and has double the caffeine of Arabica. Interestingly, the reason that Arabica has half the caffeine is due to the fact that there are less insects to be found at higher altitudes. Robusta needs more caffeine to fend off the multitude of insects at sea level. A fascinating demonstration of evolution in action!
When people drink coffee, they are drinking the roasted beans from the cherries of the coffee tree, which extracts caffeine and acts as a central nervous system stimulant warding off drowsiness and restoring alertness. In short, caffeine is the world’s favourite psychoactive legal drug. For most people, coffee in moderation is absolutely fine for health. A toxic dose is classed as over 10 grams for an adult when a cup of filter coffee contains typically around 100mg and there have been no reported cases of death by drinking coffee! Indeed, increasingly coffee is being found to be beneficial for health, including helping with Parkinson’s and Diabetes.
However, caffeine is still a powerful drug and can affect people in different ways. Caffeine can disrupt sleep or make it more difficult to get to sleep in the evening hours. Furthermore, caffeine can increase blood pressure to a degree and cause anxiety, so there are definitely potential downsides to drinking too much coffee.There is also some research into the negative effects of caffeine and pregnancy, which are currently inconclusive, but many medical experts recommend pregnant women to limit their caffeine consumption.
So, now that we know what caffeine is all about, what is decaf?
What is Decaf?
The official explanation is: “Decaffeination is the act of removing caffeine from coffee beans, cocoa, tea leaves and other caffeine-containing materials”. It means that the caffeine has been removed from the coffee.
Decadent Decaf only uses Swiss Water Process decaffeinated coffee beans, which are certified 99.9% caffeine free and uses water (no yukky chemicals whatsoever) to decaffeinate the beans.
Decaf coffee traditionally used chemical solvents to remove the caffeine and this was linked to various medical side effects. This is no longer the case. Things have moved on from the technologies of the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, this is one of the myths that Decadent Decaf aims to dispel.
There are number of benefits to drinking decaf coffee:
- Less anxiety/stress and better quality of sleep than drinking classic caffeinated coffee
- Decaf coffee still contains high levels of anti-oxidants that can prevent conditions associated with the ageing process and cancer. Studies have shown that regular decaf drinkers have reduced risks of incurring colon cancer. For female drinkers, the risks of breast cancer are also reduced.
- Studies have shown that women who drink one to three cups of decaf decrease all-cause mortality.
- Decaf coffee reduces the risk of incurring diabetes. The high anti-oxidant levels of decaf will protect the cells from damage that can lead to diabetes. Also, the decaf process will not eliminate chlorogenic acid, which helps regulate blood glucose levels.
- Caffeine has been linked to heart conditions like irregular palpitations, heart attacks, and strokes.
- Decaf contributes to the prevention of mental decline due to old age and Alzheimer's disease. The polyphenols found in coffee beans are not lost during the decaffeination process, which are responsible for boosting the brain's cognitive abilities and improving memory.
- Fat free/sugar free beverage.
- It’s a great source of hydration. The old myth that coffee is a diuretic has been proven wrong by scientists.
There are 2 main methods of modern decaffeination:
The Swiss Water Process
Developed in Switzerland in the 1980s, the Swiss Water Process is a chemical free process. The green (raw) coffee beans are immersed in water to extract the caffeine using water saturated with desirable coffee components, thereby reducing the extraction of coffee oils and flavours during the decaffeination process. This means the caffeine is extracted, but not the flavour. This steaming process takes 8 to 10 hours and involves moving the decaf batch into various baths of steam. Currently, Decadent Decaf only uses premium, high-grade coffee beans decaffeinated using the Swiss Water Process.
The CO2 Process
In science-speak, this is called supercritical fluid extraction. Basically, the process starts with the beans being immersed in carbon dioxide (same gas as in sparkling water) for around 10 hours.After a thorough soaking, the pressurized CO2 containing dissolved caffeine is removed from the chamber which is returned to atmospheric pressure, allowing the CO2 to evaporate. This allows the caffeine to be removed using charcoal filters. Again, this process avoids the use of any harmful substances and Decadent Decaf is investigating sourcing premium, great tasting beans using the CO2 Process for the future.
The old fashioned way to decaffeinate coffee is:
Methylene Chloride Process (MCP)
This is still how the vast majority of coffee is decaffeinated globally. When you drink decaffeinated instant coffee, it will almost certainly be decaffeinated using the Methylene Chloride solvent process. Likewise, if there's no mention of how the coffee was decaffeinated on the packet, again, it's almost certain to be MCP.
But what is it?
Methylene Chloride is a colourless chemical solvent in liquid form with a slightly sweet aroma with a a boiling point of 104°F. It is a chemical solvent with multiple uses including paint remover and hair spray.
The method of solvent decaffeination is as follows:
- First, the coffee beans are treated with steam to draw the caffeine from the inner coffee bean to the outer surface area of the bean.
- Methylene Chloride is applied directly to the beans. As a chemical solvent, MC removes the caffeine.
- Then steam is applied to the coffee beans again to drive out residual solvent.
- Finally, the beans are dried and roasted, which removes any further residues of the chemical solvent.
- Any amounts of methylene chloride left in brewed coffee would be less than one part per million.
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