A closer look at decaf

Not all decafs are created equal.

This good point was brought up by an HSI member named Don who sent an e-mail last week in response to an e-Alert that pointed out the drawbacks of drinking decaffeinated coffee (“Lowering The High Bar” 5/19/03). Don wrote:

“I don’t think it is fair to lump all decaf coffee into the same category. The most usual method for taking the caffeine out of coffee is with Chloroform, as I understand it. The water decaf process takes all of the caffeine out of coffee. That’s supposed to make it better than the regular or usual decaf type coffee.”

Don brings up a very good point, but some of the details need clarifying.

According to Saul N. Katz, a retired Maxwell House scientist, the first decaf processes in the early 20th century used chloroform and benzene. When they were found to be toxic, methylene chloride was used for several decades. When that chemical was discovered to be a suspected carcinogen in the 1980s, other decaf methods were employed, including the use of yet another chemical called ethyl acetate.

The water decaf technique that Don mentions – often called Swiss water process – is apparently a safe and natural way to extract caffeine from coffee. Decaf processed with water certainly sounds preferable to a process that uses methylene chloride (which is still allowed by the FDA if small enough amounts are used). But as we’ve seen in recent e-Alerts, there’s much more to water than just hydrogen and oxygen.

In last week’s e-Alert I told you about a dietary study of more than 31,000 women that revealed how four or more cups of decaffeinated coffee per day may double the chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis (RA). That study spanned 11 years and was started in the mid 80s, so there’s a very good chance that most of those women were drinking methylene chloride decaf for at least part of the study period, and probably before the study began. So obviously a further study would be needed to determine if there are any RA risks associated with water process decaf.

The fact remains that there are hundreds of components in coffee other than caffeine that may create problems for some people, but choosing a water process decaf is probably a safer bet.

Since this is an issue of concern to a lot of our members (and to me, as well), we will continue to look for research about the pros and cons of coffee – regular and decaf.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute

“Decaffeinating Coffee” Saul N. Katz, Scientific American, June 1997, scientificamerican.com