Are there benefits to drinking decaf coffee and teas?

Caffeine or decaf?

An HSI member named Paulette is grappling with this age-old dilemma. She writes: “I am wondering about decaf teas and coffees. Are they OK to drink or not? Do they still give the benefits of drinking regular coffee and teas?”

That depends on what you mean by “benefits.” Millions of java junkies consider the kick they get from caffeine to be a benefit. Obviously that one has to be crossed off the “plus” column for decaf. As for other benefits, it’s impossible to answer Paulette’s question with a blanket statement. One study, for instance, found that moderate coffee drinking might help prevent Alzheimer’s. We’d need an additional study focusing specifically on decaf in order to find out if caffeine played a role in the beneficial effect.

Paulette asks if there are any drawbacks to drinking decaf teas and coffees. That depends on the process used to remove the caffeine.

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 – often called Swiss water process – is apparently a safe method for extracting 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).

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.

If all this coffee talk has put you in the mood for a good cup of joe, you might check out Caf Avion ( This is a new mail-order coffee company started by HSI Panelist Randall Wilkinson, M.D. I haven’t had a chance yet to try any of Dr. Wilkinson’s coffees for myself, but with Caf Avion’s emphasis on fresh, organic, gourmet coffees, I expect they’re excellent. The web site is also packed with fascinating coffee history and lore.