How Is Caffeine Taken Out of Decaffeinated Coffee? (Wow!)

We sometimes give the kids a milky decaf coffee on weekend mornings, in the knowledge they won’t be wired afterwards. But it got me thinking about how the caffeine is removed in the first place?

Caffeine is removed from coffee in one of four ways; the direct or indirect chemical method, the Swiss water method, or the supercritical carbon dioxide method. However, even decaffeinated coffee has around 3% caffeine left in it.

Let’s dive down into the subject of taking caffeine out of coffee in more detail, and discover the various ways this can be done, whether these processes use any harmful chemicals – and find out why even decaf can ever be completely caffeine free…

How Is Caffeine Taken Out of Decaffeinated Coffee?

How is Caffeine Removed From Decaf Coffee?

There are several different decaffeination processes, and all are pretty complex. After all, coffee beans contain caffeine naturally, so removing it without compromising the bean was never going to be easy.

Let’s take a closer look at how caf becomes decaf…

  1. The direct chemical method. The beans are steamed (this expands the cell structures, making it easier to extract the caffeine molecules) then rinsed in a solution of ethyl acetate or methylene chloride.
  2. The indirect chemical method. This is a bit more complicated. The beans are soaked, then the chemical agent is used to treat the soaking liquor rather than the beans themselves. Once the caffeine has been removed from the water using the agent, the beans are reintroduced to the liquor. The beans then reabsorb the flavors and aromas from the water, but of course, not the caffeine because that’s been flushed away.
  3. The Swiss Water Method. This natural method is a bit like the indirect chemical method, except that the caffeine is extracted from the liquor using carbon filters, which trap the large caffeine molecules. Drink organic coffee? That will have been decaffeinated using this method. If you want to know more about the Swiss Water Method of decaffeinating coffee beans, watch this short film.
  4. The supercritical carbon dioxide method. And yes, you do need to be a chemistry major to work this one out. The beans are soaked and exposed to supercritical carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide liquifies and then evaporates, leaving you with decaffeinated beans.

What all the methods have in common is that the beans are moistened or steamed first, a process that makes it much easier to remove caffeine molecules.

There’s an interesting tale behind this process, and we’ll take a look at that in just a moment. Let’s just say, it’s almost a dictionary-perfect definition of “serendipity”. 

Is the Decaffeination Process Harmful?

The phrase “chemical process” can raise alarm bells; however today’s decaffeination methods are deemed as safe by the food standards experts.

In both the direct and indirect chemical decaffeination methods, the solvents are rinsed or evaporated out of the beans, and there’s further evaporation when they’re roasted.

Only an itsy bitsy trace of chemicals remain in the roasted bean, and while it might ring your bells, certainly hasn’t caused alarm among the food standards agents. Phew.

Health-wise, it’s good to know that decaf still contains coffee’s natural antioxidants, which don’t seem to be harmed by the decaffeination processes.

Antioxidants are molecules that protect the cells in our bodies. They combat free radicals, which are potentially harmful compounds.

Antioxidants can help fight cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, so it’s great news these molecules are still found in decaf (although maybe in slightly lower quantities)..

Is All Caffeine Removed From Decaf Coffee?

There’s actually no such thing as 100% decaf coffee. These processes remove up to 97% of all the caffeine from the beans, leaving you with that tiny bit of remaining coffee.

Unless you have a caffeine allergy (which is extremely rare), this small amount shouldn’t pose any problems.

Up to 3% caffeine is allowed by the USDA, which means that your 97% decaffeinated coffee is still allowed to be labeled as “decaf”.

Is Formaldehyde Used to Decaffeinate Coffee?

No, formaldehyde isn’t used to decaffeinate coffee, and it actually never has been.

This is a myth, created by an article published many moons ago, and although the offending article has been debunked many times, this rumor persists. (And who said that misinformation only started with the internet?)

This isn’t to say that decaf coffee doesn’t have a murky history. The first decaf coffee was brewed by prosperous German coffee merchant and the founder of Kaffee HAG, Ludwig Roselius, back in 1905.

This early decaf processes used a chemical called benzene, which unfortunately is potentially very harmful indeed. 

Ludwig Roselius believed (somewhat ironically considering his later use of benzene) that his father had died from too much caffeine. He began researching how to make a beverage that kept the delicious flavor of the coffee but removed the (Ludwig’s word) “poison” from the bean.

In the end, he made a discovery that led to the first decaffeination process completely by accident. One of his shipments of coffee was damaged by seawater on its journey.

Clearly not one to waste anything, Ludwig roasted and brewed the damp coffee beans anyway, and his  tests revealed that the seawater had removed a lot of the caffeine from them.

This discovery is still used to this day, in all the decaffeination processes we outlined above. Wetting the coffee beans helps to remove the caffeine by expanding the cell structures.

Ludwig went on to patent a steaming method, which is still in use. Unfortunately, he added benzene to the process, a potentially carcinogenic solvent that can cause blood disorders and fetal abnormalities.

Is All Caffeine Removed From Decaf Coffee?
Is All Caffeine Removed From Decaf Coffee?

What Coffee Brands Are Naturally Decaffeinated?

If you want truly “naturally decaffeinated” coffee, look out for brands that use the Swiss Water Method.

Some producers have been known to claim that their ethyl acetate-based methods are natural, simply because it can be a naturally occurring chemical. Although this solvent is used in safe quantities, if you want genuinely natural, don’t be fooled.

So which brands should you look out for?  Anything organic is a good bet, so organic-certified brands are definitely the ones to search out.

Here are a few of the coffee brands that we’ve heard use the natural decaffeination process:

Allegro Organic

Archer Farms

Caribou Coffee

Community Coffee Cafe 

Dunkin Donuts Original Decaf

Illy Decaf

Kicking Horse Decaf

Mount Hagen Instant Organic Decaf

Nescafe Decaf Instant

No Fun Joe Decaf

Organic Coffee Co Gorilla Decaf

Starbucks Decaf

Wicked Joe Organic French Decaf

That’s a lot of the good stuff to be going on with!

Not sure which brands are the most natural?  Simply read the labels on the coffee bags or jars. Brands that use the natural Swiss Water Method are (rightly) proud of their production, and they will say so on their packaging.