Okay, Really: Can the Trace Amounts of Caffeine in Decaf Coffee Keep Me Awake at Night?

Photo: Stocksy/Valentina Barreto
Some of us absolutely love and thrive on cup after cup of strong coffee (yours truly included), while others aim to avoid caffeine at all costs. If you’re in the latter group for whatever reason — perhaps the stimulant triggers digestive discomfort, or it keeps you wired straight until bedtime—you might prioritize decaf coffee if you still love the taste of java, or maybe opt for decaf tea instead. For folks in the "no caffeine" camp, I hate to break it to you, but...there are trace amounts of caffeine in decaf coffee (and all of your other fav decaf beverages).

Feeling betrayed? We don't blame you—it's kind of annoying that caffeine free and decaffeinated don't mean exactly the same thing. But how much caffeine is in decaf coffee, and how does it stack up to the regular stuff? Here's everything you need to know before brewing your next cup.

Experts In This Article

How much caffeine is in decaf coffee?

According to the USDA's FoodData nutrition database, an 8-ounce cup of black decaf coffee has 2.37 milligrams of caffeine, while a 1-ounce shot of decaf espresso has 0.3 milligrams of caffeine. (Compare that to an 8-ounce cup of regular black coffee, which has nearly 95 milligrams of caffeine.)

The decaffeination process—which typically involves soaking coffee beans in a chemical solution that breaks down caffeine—removes about 97 percent of the beans' caffeine content. However, the decaf coffee you buy out in the world can vary significantly in caffeine content. "Based on existing research, up to 15 milligrams of caffeine1 or more can be detected in one 16-ounce serving of decaf coffee,” says Maddie Pasquariello, RDN, a dietitian based in Brooklyn. “For decaf espresso, up to 15 milligrams of caffeine per shot can be found, though levels are typically a bit lower.”

Caffeine content can also depend on the brand of coffee you choose—but Pasquariello says this isn’t a highly significant factor. “Certain brands of decaf will use different decaffeination processes so the levels will differ slightly because of that, but usually not to a degree that the average consumer would be likely to detect,” she explains.

How you go about making your cup of joe—and how large that serving is—can also affect how much caffeine is in your decaf coffee. “Brewing at a higher temperature, or using smaller grinds, and/or with a longer brew time, would all individually increase the amount of caffeine, yet these factors tend to be more of a concern when we're talking about caffeinated coffee brewing,” Pasquariello says. These points considered, you can rest assured that your mug of decaf coffee still won’t come close to containing the amount of caffeine in a standard cup of joe, no matter which brand you choose and how you brew it.

Which type of decaf coffee has the least amount of caffeine?

Pasquariello says that store-bought decaf coffee from the grocery store will likely pack only trace amounts of caffeine (anywhere from zero to five milligrams). That's because stuff that's sold in stores tends to be more tightly regulated than what is served at restaurants and coffee shops, she says. Meanwhile, "decaf options from major coffee chains average between five to 10 milligrams of caffeine for their decaf drinks, including espresso,” Pasquariello says.

What are the pros and cons of decaf coffee?

Pro: It's lower in caffeine

As mentioned, decaf coffee has significantly less caffeine content than regular coffee in all forms—making it an ideal beverage for people who are pregnant or otherwise trying to limit their caffeine intake.

Pro: It has anti-inflammatory benefits

Experts consider decaf coffee to be a truly anti-inflammatory beverage. Research shows that caffeine can trigger a stress response in the body (cue racing heart, jitters, and anxiety that can prevent you from getting quality sleep in some instances). However, by omitting (or, at least, lowering) the caffeine content in a brew, the body can better reap the potent anti-inflammatory antioxidants present in the drink.

Pro: It's good for your gut health

Coffee, whether it's decaf or regular, can increase colon activity to help keep things moving through your digestive tract. (That's one of the reasons why coffee makes you poop.) Some evidence links decaf and caffeinated coffee to a reduced risk of colorectal cancer, too2.

Con: It still contains some caffeine

Yes, decaf coffee has way less caffeine than traditional coffees and espressos. But it still has some trace amounts—so if you're super sensitive to caffeine or are trying to avoid it altogether, you should steer clear.

Con: There are some potential health concerns about the decaffeination process

One of the most common methods to decaffeinate coffee is to soak it in methylene chloride and then rinse it off. This chemical is a known carcinogen (meaning it's linked to a risk of cancer); exposure to large quantities of it in manufacturing settings can hurt the eyes, skin, liver, and heart. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set strict rules about how much methylene chloride residue is allowed to remain on coffee beans—no more than 10 parts per million, or 0.001 percent—but advocacy groups filed a petition in December 2023 to demand the agency revisit that rule and ban the chemical altogether.

To be clear: There's no conclusive evidence that decaf coffee is bad for you. But if you're concerned about potential methylene chloride in your decaf coffee, don't fret—there are many other methods that don't use solvent chemicals, such as the Swiss Water Process (which submerges beans in water, then filters them through carbon to remove caffeine) or the CO2 process (which combines soaked coffee beans with liquid carbon dioxide, which draws out caffeine). You can find brands using these processes with a little digging (or checking out this page).

Best decaf coffee, according to an RD

Pasquariello says Velty Uncaffeinated Classic Instant Coffee ($24 for eight servings) is one of her picks for best decaf coffee. “They actually call their coffee ‘uncaf’ and are changing the game even further by brewing and then freeze-drying their beans, which results in a dissolvable instant decaf coffee,” she shares. (All of Velty's products have less than 2 grams of caffeine per serving. )

Pasquariello also explains that Velty adds other good-for-you ingredients—think gut- and immune-boosters inulin, mesquite, and adaptogenic mushroom powders — into their coffee products. “There's always room for innovation in the coffee space given the complexity of the processes involved in producing and brewing it, so it will be interesting to see what further evolution takes place on the decaf front,” she says.

Is decaf coffee still a stimulant?

Technically, yes, decaf coffee is a stimulant. (Blame the trace amounts of caffeine.) Research shows that although decaf coffee has much lower amounts of caffeine, it still has stimulatory effects that can impact mood and reaction time3. That said, these side effects are much lower in comparison to regular caffeinated coffee. For most folks, these stimulating effects will be negligible, if not unnoticeable.

Will decaf coffee keep you awake?

It's unlikely that decaf coffee will keep you awake (unless you are very sensitive to caffeine) because the amount per serving is so small. So if you enjoy a cup or two of either per day, there’s a decent chance that you won’t lose sleep over your intake. If you're worried, it doesn't hurt to limit consumption to mornings or early afternoons.

Does decaf tea have caffeine?

Similar to decaf coffee, decaffeinated tea also contains trace amounts of the stimulating compound. “Usually, caffeine in decaf tea will only amount to a few milligrams,” Pasquariello says, “so it’s likely nothing that would make a difference in your day or interrupt your sleep.” But if you’re in the market for 100-percent, naturally caffeine-free tea, you’ll want to check out herbal blends such as peppermint, ginger, citrus, and chamomile tea—the last of which is particularly lauded for its relaxing, sleep-supporting, and tummy-soothing benefits.

Note: Research shows that chocolate products—as well as coffee-flavored yogurts and ice creams—will usually pack more caffeine than decaf tea does4. So if you can enjoy a sizable piece of your favorite chocolate bar for dessert or sip on hot cocoa without experiencing undesirable symptoms, decaf teas can safely remain a safe, non-stimulating staple in your routine.

Best ways to reduce your caffeine intake altogether

On a parting note, if you want to do *all* the things to reduce your caffeine intake further or are worried about consuming too much caffeine ever, Pasquariello advises reducing your portion size, diluting your drink with additional water or milk, or giving decaf coffee the cold shoulder completely by swapping it for caffeine-free herbal tea instead.

A registered dietitian shares the benefits of drinking coffee:

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. McCusker, Rachel R et al. “Caffeine content of decaffeinated coffee.” Journal of analytical toxicology vol. 30,8 (2006): 611-3. doi:10.1093/jat/30.8.611
  2. Schmit, Stephanie L et al. “Coffee Consumption and the Risk of Colorectal Cancer.” Cancer epidemiology, biomarkers & prevention : a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, cosponsored by the American Society of Preventive Oncology vol. 25,4 (2016): 634-9. doi:10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-15-0924
  3. Sane, Rohit M et al. “The acute effects of decaffeinated versus caffeinated coffee on reaction time, mood and skeletal muscle strength.” Journal of basic and clinical physiology and pharmacology vol. 30,5 10.1515/jbcpp-2018-0119. 1 Aug. 2019, doi:10.1515/jbcpp-2018-0119
  4. Rudolph, E et al. “Determination of the caffeine contents of various food items within the Austrian market and validation of a caffeine assessment tool (CAT).” Food additives & contaminants. Part A, Chemistry, analysis, control, exposure & risk assessment vol. 29,12 (2012): 1849-60. doi:10.1080/19440049.2012.719642

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.

Loading More Posts...