Decaf coffee can be a great option for people who like the taste of coffee but don’t want the effects of caffeine.
Everyone feels these effects differently, and some of us are particularly sensitive to caffeine. This can cause unwanted symptoms, like restlessness and disrupted sleep.
People without this sensitivity may just prefer decaf in the afternoon or evening because it doesn’t keep them up.
In this article, we look at how producers make decaf coffee, whether it’s good for you, and how it compares to its caffeinated cousin.
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How is decaf coffee made?
Because the manufacturing process is different from that of regular coffee, there’s a slight difference in taste.
Producers decaffeinate coffee beans when the beans are raw, before the roasting stage. This involves using a solvent to remove the caffeine, and this doesn’t affect the other components of the bean.
There are several variations of this process, including:
the Swiss water process, which uses water as the solvent
the supercritical carbon dioxide process, which uses heavily compressed liquid carbon dioxide
the sugar cane process, which uses a fermented molasses compound
All of these methods safely alter the chemical makeup of the coffee bean, and in doing so change the taste.
But none of these processes removes caffeine entirely.
Decaf coffee has 97% less caffeine than regular coffee, leaving up to about 7 milligrams of caffeine per cup. In comparison, a regular cup of coffee has 70–140 mg of caffeine.
Why decaffeination affects the taste
Coffee expert James Hoffman spoke about decaf coffee on a ZOE podcast. He told us that decaffeinating the bean reduces its density and increases the risk of the coffee going stale.
This is because the process removes oil from inside the bean, so more air can enter, potentially causing staleness. All of this complicates the roasting process.
So, decaf doesn’t automatically taste worse than regular coffee, but it’s harder to keep fresh. James recommends buying whole beans and grinding them at home to prevent staleness.
Benefits of decaf coffee
The health advantages of drinking decaf coffee are similar to those of caffeinated coffee.
After all, much of coffee’s nutritional power comes from plant compounds called polyphenols in the bean. Even when manufacturers remove the caffeine, the polyphenols remain intact.
Many studies, however, have failed to distinguish between the two types, or they’ve only looked at caffeinated coffee.
A good source of fiber
As ZOE Co-Founder Tim Spector points out, coffee is a high-fiber drink.
“It's probably the drink you have regularly that contains the most fiber. There's more fiber in it than a glass of orange juice.”
He explains that coffee also provides a diverse range of fiber types. These feed the trillions of microbes that together make up your gut microbiome.
Fiber can provide a variety of health benefits, such as:
more regular bowel movements
improved gut and heart health
better cholesterol levels
better blood sugar control
a lower risk of certain cancers
It may also help support weight loss.
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Rich in polyphenols
Coffee contains plenty of polyphenols, specifically a type called phenolic acids.
These work as antioxidants — molecules that combat the effects of harmful molecules called free radicals.
A diet rich in polyphenols may provide a number of health benefits, including:
better blood sugar control
a lower risk of heart disease
a reduced risk of cancer
better gut health
improved memory function
Lowered risk of all-cause mortality
A 2021 meta-analysis found that people who drank 3 cups of coffee a day had a risk of all-cause mortality that was 13% lower than the risk for people who never or rarely drank coffee.
The findings were similar whether the coffee was decaf or caffeinated.
This analysis looked at 21 studies, together including more than 10 million participants and data from more than 240,000 deaths.
Protection from liver and heart disease
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) can lead to more severe, chronic liver disease.
Coffee may protect people with NAFLD from developing liver fibrosis — scarring caused by damage over time — according to a 2021 review of five studies.
A large review also concluded that coffee, whether caffeinated or decaf, was linked with having less severe NAFLD in people who also had type 2 diabetes and overweight.
In addition, decaf coffee may be associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, according to a 2022 study with data from 449,563 participants.
Suitable for people who avoid caffeine
Obviously, one big benefit of decaf coffee is that it doesn’t have much caffeine. This can prevent some unwanted effects.
Decaf may be safer for people who need to stay away from significant amounts of caffeine. This includes people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
It also includes people with certain health issues, such as:
high blood pressure
gastroesophageal reflux disease, known as GERD
Risks of decaf coffee
There’s little evidence that drinking decaf has any risks, according to a 2017 review of meta-analyses.
Some sources claim that decaf coffee can be dangerous when manufacturers use methylene chloride to remove the caffeine.
However, the amount legally approved for decaffeination by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is far below the amount that causes symptoms.
How much caffeine should I have?
Decaf coffee can be useful for people who avoid caffeine, as well as people who have hit their daily limit.
The FDA recommends limiting your daily caffeine intake to 400 mg, which would be 4–5 cups of coffee.
You might be getting near “too much caffeine” if you’re experiencing:
anxiousness and a low mood
jitters and restlessness
a rapid heartbeat
an upset stomach and nausea
Producers make decaf coffee by removing caffeine from coffee beans with a solvent before roasting them.
The solvent leaves many of the other components, and the flavor, relatively untouched.
This means that decaf has many of the health benefits of regular coffee. It provides fiber and polyphenols, supporting your gut health and possibly benefiting your heart health.
Decaf is a useful option for people who need to avoid significant amounts of caffeine for health reasons.
It can also be a good choice for anyone who wants coffee in the evenings and people who have already hit their caffeine limit for the day.
However, it’s important to remember that decaf coffee does contain a small amount of caffeine.
Like most aspects of your diet, the choice between regular and decaf is highly individual. Your body responds in a unique way to what you eat and drink.
ZOE’s at-home test can teach you about your unique blood sugar and blood fat responses, and give you a breakdown of the bugs in your gut microbiome. From this, we also provide personalized nutrition advice.
To learn more, take our free quiz.
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