What is Healthier: Decaf or Regular Coffee?
There’s something irresistible about having a warm cup in hand, about fragrant dark liquid trickling down the throat and into the gut, about the ceremony of a hot drink in the morning. Witness the fact that Starbucks is doing brisk business in 70 countries, that Dunkin’ Donuts has stores in 60 nations, that hip, urban areas as well as trendy tourist spots worldwide seem to support a coffee café on every corner.1 But not everyone can handle the caffeine buzz, either because of health issues or a sensitive constitution, and some find that tea, even though it has lower caffeine content, doesn’t quite deliver the same satisfaction. Thus, the decaf coffee industry thrives, accounting for 10 to 20 percent of all coffee sales.2
Sure, many in the health-conscious community worry that coffee in general isn’t great for well-being in spite of all those reports of late endorsing the benefits of the caffeinated brew. And those benefits certainly seem to be manifold. Coffee is the single greatest source of antioxidants in the typical diet, it’s linked with lower risk of dying from colon cancer, of developing dementia, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and so on. On the other hand, it raises blood pressure, is linked to early death when more than four cups a day are consumed, can cause gout, intestinal issues, incontinence, and infertility, and unless it’s organic, there are all those pesticides.3
And so, the final verdict on coffee is unclear. It’s even more confusing when considering decaf, which shares some of the advantages of the rocket-fuel variety, but brings problems of its own.
Is decaf better than regular? Here are some things to consider:
1. Decaf Increases “Bad” LDL Cholesterol; Regular Does Not. Many people who drink decaf do so because studies show that regular coffee increases blood pressure while decaf doesn’t. But to the dismay of those who subscribe to the cholesterol-theory of heart disease, it turns out that decaf raises LDL cholesterol, unlike caffeinated coffee. In addition, decaf decreases HDL, the so-called “good” cholesterol, by up to 30 percent. These conclusions were reached by the American Heart Association after a study of 187 subjects who drank either caffeinated or decaf for three months.4
Death by decaf? As Jon Barron has written, higher LDL isn’t necessarily cause for alarm, since there are four types of LDL and not all of them are harmful. The problem here is that the study did define the type of LDL increased by decaf, and it is indeed that evil small-particle variety that could signal trouble.5 If your physician sees your LDL numbers go up, a prescription for statins will surely follow, and that might be the greatest danger. You can avoid that fate by laying off the decaf and cleaning up your diet in general, while you’re at it.
2. Decaffeinated Coffee Has Higher Acidity (Arguably). One thing that gives coffee its flavor is the various acids that comprise it, but the decaffeinating process strips away some of those acids.6 To retain as much flavor as possible, manufacturers tend to use the most acidic type of beans they can find in decaf—the less flavorful, cruder Robusta beans.7 Regular coffee is typically made with the more flavorful, and less acidic, Arabica beans. There haven’t been many studies comparing acidity levels in decaf versus caffeinated coffee, but of the few on the record, at least one concluded that decaf coffee ends up being the more acidic brew because of its Robusta origins. That’s a problem since high levels of acidity are associated with gastrointestinal disease, osteoporosis, mineral loss, high cortisol (systemic stress) levels, and compromised health overall.
Of course, there’s a second study out there that contradicts those findings, asserting that regular coffee registers much higher levels of acidity. 8(Then again, as Jon Barron has frequently pointed out, studies aren’t necessarily as reliable as you have been led to believe.) The fact is that very little data supports either contention. What is clear is that any type of coffee is acidic, whether regular or decaf. While the ideal pH alkalinity in the blood is about 7.4, coffee typically is about a 4, far to the acid side, and the effects of coffee’s acidity are exacerbated by the fact that coffee of all types stimulates the secretion of stomach acid. If you have acid reflux, an ulcer, or concerns about maintaining a healthy pH, you’re probably better off staying away from Starbucks.
3. Decaf May Trigger Rheumatoid Arthritis. A large study of 31,336 women back in 2002 found that those subjects who drank four or more cups of decaf a day had double the likelihood of developing rheumatoid arthritis (RA).9 There was no relationship found between consuming regular coffee and rheumatoid arthritis. While the researchers weren’t sure why only decaf had the harmful effect, they suspected it might have to do with the chemicals used in the decaffeination process. But then, the next year, the Nurse’s Health Study, which involved 121,701 women, found no relationship at all between drinking decaf and developing RA, so once again, the jury is out and the investigations have not yet been repeated.
4. The Decaffeination Process May Use Unsavory Chemicals. To make decaf coffee, the caffeine has to be removed from the bean, and there are four ways to do that. The most common methods involve using chemical solvents, particularly ethyl acetate or methyl chloride, with 80 percent of decaf produced via the chemical route. Because methyl chloride has the least effect on flavor, it’s used by Starbucks and other major companies. According to OSHA, methyl chloride is a solvent used in paint stripping, pharmaceutical manufacturing, paint remover manufacturing, and metal cleaning and degreasing.10 Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control note that exposure to methyl chloride may lead to “dizziness, nausea, vomiting; visual disturbance, stagger, slurred speech, convulsions, coma; liver, kidney damage; liquid: frostbite (yes, frostbite); reproductive issues, teratogenic effects,” and that it’s a “potential occupational carcinogen.”11
While industry representatives and scientists claim that the washing and roasting processes get rid of most chemical residue, and while the FDA says that the trace amounts found in decaf are far too negligible to cause problems, daily drinking of multiple cups certainly might dump a chemical load into your system. If you must drink decaf, it’s probably wise to stick with decaf produced via the natural Swiss Water Process.
So, decaf or regular? Other than relief from hypertensive impact, decaf doesn’t seem to offer any advantages over regular, and in fact, has lower antioxidant content. If you can’t handle the caffeine, you might want to consider a coffee alternative like Dandy Blend, Teeccino, Pero, Cafix, or the like. And remember, decaf is not nocaf. Each cup contains about 7 mg of caffeine. Have 6 cups a day, and you're up over 40 mg of caffeine a day. But i f nothing but decaf does it for you, at least go for an organic, water-processed variety.
- 1. https://www.starbucks.com/business/international-stores
- 2. Bradley, Ellie. “Decaf Coffee: More Than an Afterthought.” 4 April 2016. Fresh Cup Magazine. 16 March 2017. http://www.freshcup.com/more-than-an-afterthought/
- 3. “20 Harmful Effects of Caffeine.” 18 March 2017. https://www.caffeineinformer.com/harmful-effects-of-caffeine
- 4. Froeck, Barbara. “Decaffeinated Coffee & LDL Cholesterol.” 25 April 2014. Livestrong.com. 16 March 2017. http://www.livestrong.com/article/475246-decaffeinated-coffee-ldl-cholesterol/
- 5. Raino, Charlene. “Decaf Coffee May Raise Heart Risks.” 16 November 2005. WebMD. 16 March 2017. http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/news/20051116/decaf-coffee-may-raise-heart-risks#1
- 6. “What is Acidity in Regards to the Taste of Coffee?” Sweet Maria’s Coffee Library. 17 March 2017. http://legacy.sweetmarias.com/library/weblog/what-acidity-regards-taste-coffee
- 7. Raffeto, Meri, RD et al. “Effect of Decaffeinated Coffee on Health.” 17 March 2017. http://teeccino.com/images/uploads/pages/File/DECAF.pdf
- 8. Bergen, Theresa. “Acid Levels in Caffeinated vs. Decaf Coffee.” 18 February 2015. Livestrong.com. 17 March 2017. http://www.livestrong.com/article/543945-acid-levels-caffeinated-vs-decaf-coffee/
- 9. Willis, Melinda. “Decaf May Increase Arthritis Risk.” 12 November. ABC News. 17 March 2017. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=117127&page=1
- 10. https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/methylenechloride/
- 11. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npgd0403.html