Coffee snobs tend to look down on decaf drinkers. But if you're having trouble sleeping, find yourself relying on cup after cup of joe just to make it through the day, or it just isn't making you feel great, cutting down on caffeine intake can be a good idea. If you're making the change—or at least considering it—but don't want to totally deprive yourself of coffee, decaf coffee can be a good compromise.
Despite its name, decaf coffee isn't 100-percent caffeine free (sorry!); one study showed that most decaffeinated coffees have between eight and 14 milligrams of caffeine. That's because with decaf coffee, most (but not all) of the caffeine is removed from the coffee beans by being washed in a liquid solution typically comprised of water and carbon dioxide, methylene chloride, activated charcoal, or ethyl acetate. Then the beans can be roasted and brewed the same way coffee beans in their natural form are. To compare, a regular cup of coffee tends to have 95 milligrams of caffeine, matcha has between 30 and 70 milligrams of caffeine, and a cup of black tea has about 47 milligrams.
Still, given that it's essentially still coffee, it's natural to wonder how decaf coffee compares to its fully-caffeinated counterpart, and whether decaf coffee is bad for you. Here, nutrition and epidemiology expert Rob van Dam, MD, gives the straight facts on everything you need to know about decaf coffee.
Want to learn more about the health benefits of coffee? Check out this java-themed episode of You Versus Food:
The health benefits of decaf coffee
According to Dr. van Dam, decaf coffee has many of the same health benefits as a caffeinated cup. "Decaffeinated coffee includes polyphenols, including chlorogenic acid and lignans," he says. This is beneficial to the body because polyphenols help the body fight against damage caused by harmful agents like ultraviolet rays, radiation, and some pathogens. In turn, this leads to lower risk for cancer and other illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease.
Dr. van Dam also points out that like regular coffee, decaf coffee contains potassium and magnesium, two minerals that benefit the body in many different ways. The body literally can't function without potassium, which is used to keep muscles working properly and regulating the body's blood fluid levels. And magnesium can help with everything from cognitive function to reducing cortisol levels.
"Decaffeinated coffee also contains vitamin B3 and its precursor trigonelline," Dr. van Dam says. Scientific studies have linked trigonelline to being calming, helping fight off migraines, improving memory, and being anti-tumor—a pretty impressive resume.
Is decaf coffee bad for you?
"To my knowledge there is no evidence for substantial detrimental effects of decaffeinated coffee," Dr. van Dam says. While there have been some internet rumors of decaf coffee being bad for heart health, Dr. van Dam says that this has not actually been confirmed by any scientific studies. "A combined analysis of all trials comparing caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee showed no difference in impact on serum cholesterol concentrations," he says. In non-science speak, this means regular and decaf coffee both affect the heart similarly.
What matters more, Dr. van Dam says, is the brewing method. "Coffee contains a cholesterol-raising compound called diterpene cafestol that is present in unfiltered coffee—such as boiled, Fresh press, Greek or Turkish coffee—but not in paper-filtered, aka instant coffee, because it remains in the filter during the coffee making process."
As far as health risks go, Dr. van Dam says there are none to be aware of when it comes to decaf coffee.
Is decaf coffee healthier than regular coffee?
Okay, now the major question: what's healthier, decaf or regular? Unfortunately, Dr. van Dam says there isn't a straight-forward verdict. "There is no simple answer because it [partially] depends on the individual drinking it," he says. "For example, caffeine intake during pregnancy may reduce growth and has been associated with a higher risk of pregnancy loss. And for some people, high caffeine can lead to unpleasant symptoms such as anxiety and difficulty sleeping." But on the other hand, he again highlights the major health benefits coffee also brings.
But in general, both caffeinated coffee and decaf coffee are considered healthy beverages, so you can feel safe experimenting with what fits in best with your wellness lifestyle. No matter which one you choose, you'll reap some major healthy rewards.
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