The dangers of decaf - is it really a healthy choice?
We spend almost £6.3 billion annually on takeaway coffee, and the industry is booming - just turn around any street corner and you'll find Costa Coffee, Starbucks and Cafe Nero. 80% of people drink coffee or tea on a daily basis (1), but what is all this caffeine consumption doing to our health? With decaffeinated tea and coffee readily available, should we be making the switch to decaf, or is it not as healthy a choice as it seems? We wanted to find out.
Drinking too much caffeine (in tea, coffee, energy drinks and soft drinks) can quickly lead to physical dependence as well as causing headaches, difficulty focusing and problems getting enough sleep. Cutting out caffeine might seem like the obvious solution, but when you have already become dependent on it, kicking the habit can be tough and could lead to headaches, fatigue, mood swings and even nausea as your body craves its daily caffeine fix.
Why do we love tea and coffee so much?
If you're the type of person who can't get through a morning without a cuppa, you're not alone. Caffeine triggers our bodies to instantly release adrenaline, which helps us to feel more alert, although one study revealed that caffeine may not actually be beneficial in improving work performance - you may work faster, but are more likely to make mistakes. You're also likely to feel twice as tired once the effects of the caffeine wear off, and that could leave you reaching for another cup!
Heart disease and stroke
Caffeine also increases your blood pressure, and a report published in the US Journal of Caffeine Research claimed that caffeine intake could be responsible for 14% of premature deaths caused by coronary heart disease. It could also increase your risk of stroke, if you're regularly consuming more than four cups a day.
What's in your cuppa?
Tea contains around 20mg of caffeine per 100g, whilst black filter coffee contains around 40mg per 100g (2), double the amount of tea. It's worth noting that this amount can vary depending on the type of tea and the brewing time - so strong builder's tea will contain more caffeine than your average milky brew!
In order to be classed as 'decaffeinated', tea and coffee must have at least 97% of its caffeine removed (3). So 6oz of brewed decaf coffee would contain, on average, around 5mg caffeine (compared to regular coffee, which contains between 100-150mg caffeine). We drink decaffeinated coffee and tea because we believe it's better for us - it doesn't keep us awake at night or make us jittery. But is it really better for our bodies?
The decaf process
In order to answer that question, we need to know how the caffeine is removed from our favourite beverages. There are three methods commonly used to remove caffeine from tea or coffee; the method used depends on the manufacturer:
- Chemical solvents such as methylene chlorid or ethyl acetate
- Carbon dioxide
- The water method
Ethyl acetate is a chemical solvent which is derived from fruit, and you may see tea or coffee decaffeinated in this way labelled as 'natural' decaf.
There have been studies in the past which have discovered that methylene chloride could cause cancer when inhaled - although these studies were carried out on lab animals, not humans. The chemical has been banned from use in hairspray, but research revealed that when it was drunk, it had no carcinogenic effect. Experts tell us that no chemical residue remains in our decaffeinated tea or coffee, and many big coffee chains, Starbucks included, make decaf using methylene chloride, which they believe preserves the full flavour of the coffee (compared to the water method which dilutes flavour).
Several health scares have sprung up in the past surrounding decaf - one such study carried out in Iowa showed that drinking four or more cups of decaf a day led to an increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis, however other studies have found no link. But there's no denying that exposure to methylene chloride in other forms can cause headaches, skin irritation, dizziness and faintness. We know that the traces of the chemical left in our decaf drinks are not really enough to pose a healthy risk, but do you really want to be drinking something that is treated with the same chemical used in aerosol sprays and paint strippers?
What's the answer?
The jury is out on the decaf issue and there are arguments for and against whether it's a healthier alternative to regular tea and coffee. Cutting back on your caffeine levels will certainly benefit your health and could be particularly beneficial if you're struggling with getting to sleep. One way to reduce your caffeine intake could be to cut back on the number of caffeinated drinks you consume, rather than switching to decaf. Try swapping a cup of tea or coffee for a herbal tea that's naturally caffeine-free. Slowly increase the number of herbal teas and decrease the cups of tea and coffee and you could find you overcome your caffeine addiction entirely!
If you do decide to drink decaf, it's worth searching for teas and coffees that have been decaffeinated without the use of methylene chloride. These are readily available online and in health food stores. Twinings use the carbon dioxide method to remove the caffeine from their tea, and whilst you may pay a little more for their loose tea and teabags, we think it's worth it.
READ THIS NEXT: Caffeine - the good, the bad and the ugly