Okay, Really: Can the Trace Amounts of Caffeine in Decaf Coffee or Tea 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.

However, it’s important to remember that decaffeinated beverages still, in fact, contain traces of caffeine… but how much of it does each pack, exactly? Keep reading for answers.

Experts In This Article

How much caffeine is in decaf coffee?

Let’s get straight to it: “Based on existing research, up to 15 milligrams of caffeine or more can be detected in one 16-ounce serving of decaf coffee,” begins Maddie Pasquariello, MS, 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.” For reference, she adds that your standard cup of caffeinated coffee will contain around 100 milligrams of caffeine, though the exact amount will depend on a range of factors—and the same goes with how much of it remains in your decaf beverage of choice.

“Upon analysis, decaf options from major coffee chains average between five to 10 milligrams of caffeine for their decaf drinks, including espresso,” Pasquariello continues. And since store-bought instant coffee tends to be more tightly-regulated, decaf varieties available at your go-to grocer will likely pack only trace amounts of caffeine (anywhere from zero to five milligrams), she adds. This can be good news for those who avoid the stimulant as best they can and make their brews at home. “Decaf coffee that has undergone more rigorous methods of decaffeination—like ethyl acetate decaffeination or supercritical carbon dioxide decaffeination—will contain very little, and potentially indetectable, amounts,” Pasquariello says.

With that in mind, how much caffeine will actually make it into your system will 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.

Additional factors that may influence how much caffeine you’ll get from your decaf coffee include:

  • Brew method
  • Water temperature
  • Size of your coffee grounds

“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.

How about decaf tea?

Similar to decaf coffee, decaffeinated tea also contains trace amounts of the stimulating compound—though typically at significantly lower amounts. “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.” Again, it always helps to have a reference point: According to one study, the caffeine content in a standard cup of white, green, or black tea varies from around 14 to 61 milligrams per cup, with longer steep times yielding higher caffeine content.

Pasquariello notes that popular decaf tea options include English breakfast, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, green tea, and chai. 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 does. 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.

The bottom line

To reiterate, although caffeine is present in both decaf coffee and decaf tea, it’s in far less quantities than their caffeinated counterparts. So if you enjoy a cup or two of either per day, there’s a decent chance that you won’t (literally) lose sleep over your intake; it also won’t hurt to limit consumption to mornings or early afternoons. Of course, there are always exceptions, which is where Pasquariello’s tips can come to the rescue.

“If you're hyper-sensitive to caffeine but still love the taste of your morning cup, it could be worth checking out brands that are approaching decaffeination with more rigorous standards,” Pasquariello shares, citing Velty as one of her RD-approved options. “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.” From there, she explains that they add other good-for-you ingredients—think gut- and immune-boosters inulin, mesquite, and adaptogenic mushroom powders. “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,” says Pasquariello.

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

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