Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world.
For those who are caffeine-sensitive or looking to reduce their caffeine intake, decaffeinated, or decaf, coffee can be a great alternative if you don’t want to give up on coffee’s delicious taste entirely.
However, decaf coffee still provides caffeine.
This article reviews how decaf coffee is made and how much caffeine your decaf cup of joe may hold.
Decaf coffee is not completely caffeine-free.
While USDA regulations stipulate that decaf should not exceed 0.10 percent caffeine on a dry basis in the package, comparison between brewed regular and decaf coffee shows that decaf appears to have at least 97% of caffeine removed (3, 4, 5).
To put this into perspective, an average 12-ounce (354-ml) cup of coffee containing 180 mg of caffeine would have about 5.4 mg of caffeine in a decaffeinated state.
Caffeine content in decaf coffee depends on the type of bean and the decaffeination process.
Decaf coffee beans are typically made by one of three methods, using either water, organic solvents or carbon dioxide to draw caffeine out of the coffee beans (6).
All methods soak or steam green, unroasted coffee beans until the caffeine is dissolved or until the pores of the beans are opened. From there, the caffeine is extracted.
Here is a brief description of each method and how caffeine is extracted (6):
- Solvent-based process: This method uses a combination of methylene chloride, ethyl acetate and water to create a solvent that extracts the caffeine. Neither chemical is found in coffee as they evaporate.
- Swiss water process: This is the only organic method of decaffeinating coffee. It relies on osmosis to extract caffeine and guarantees a 99.9% decaffeinated product.
- Carbon dioxide process: The newest method uses carbon dioxide, a compound naturally found in coffee as a gas, to remove the caffeine and leave other flavor compounds intact. While efficient, it’s also expensive.
Overall, the type of roasted coffee you buy will affect the flavor more than the decaffeination method.
However, the decaffeination process does alter the smell and taste of coffee, resulting in a milder flavor and different color (6).
SUMMARYDecaf coffee means that the coffee beans are at least 97% decaffeinated. There are three methods of decaffeinating the beans and all result in a milder product compared to regular coffee.
The caffeine content of your decaf coffee likely depends on where your coffee is from.
Caffeine in Average Decaf Coffee
While even 7 mg of caffeine may seem low, it could be of concern for those who have been advised to cut their intake due to kidney disease, anxiety disorders or caffeine sensitivity.
Researchers suggest that drinking 5–10 cups of decaf coffee could accumulate the amount of caffeine in 1–2 cups of regular, caffeinated coffee (8).
Thus, those avoiding caffeine should be careful.
Caffeine Content of Known Coffee Chains
One study analyzed 16-ounce (473-ml) cups of drip-brewed decaf coffee from nine US chains or local coffee houses. All but one contained 8.6–13.9 mg caffeine, with an average of 9.4 mg per 16-ounce (473-ml) cup (7).
In comparison, an average 16-ounce (473-ml) cup of regular coffee packs approximately 188 mg of caffeine (12).
The researchers also purchased Starbucks decaffeinated espresso and brewed coffee and measured their caffeine content.
The decaf espresso contained 3–15.8 mg per shot, while the decaf coffee had 12–13.4 mg of caffeine per 16-ounce (473-ml) serving.
While the caffeine content is lower than that of regular coffee, it’s still present.
To be safe, look up the caffeine content in your favorite coffee shop’s decaf coffee before drinking it, especially if you consume multiple cups of decaf per day.
SUMMARYWhile decaf coffee contains much less caffeine than regular coffee, it’s not truly caffeine-free. Those looking to cut caffeine should evaluate their coffee choice first.