A Latte Trouble: Is Decaf Coffee Bad for You?

Extra cream, extra sugar, easy on the methylene chloride.
Decaf coffee is under fire.
Decaf coffee is under fire. / Nitat Termmee/Moment via Getty Images
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While millions of people enjoy the stimulant effects of coffee, a number of others are unable or unwilling to consume caffeine. For them, decaffeinated coffee provides the same taste without the jitters.

But there might be some big reasons to worry about decaf. Namely, a chemical component used in the decaffeination process that has consumer advocacy groups alarmed.

To make decaf, coffee beans are boiled and then immersed in a chemical bath to strip them of caffeine. One common chemical, methylene chloride, binds to the caffeine in the bean. When the beans are rinsed, the caffeine is (largely) removed; the beans can then be roasted and ground.

Because methylene chloride is considered a carcinogen, its use in coffee is controversial. Serious effects—like liver damage or skin irritation—can be observed with prolonged exposure.

While its use in the decaf process is unsettling for some, there is no evidence decaf coffee consumption leads to adverse effects, as the chemical should largely be absent from processed beans. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets a threshold for the amount of methylene chloride that’s allowed to remain: that amount can’t exceed 10 ppm (parts per million) in residue.

“While methylene chloride may be indirectly involved in food processing, such as in the decaffeination of coffee beans, residue limits have been set to limit exposure,” an FDA spokesperson told CNN. “Any food product that contains residues of methylene chloride above the established limits are not permitted for sale or consumption.”

But some health advocates feel the risk is still present. Groups like Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and the Environmental Defense Fund have called upon the FDA to prohibit use of the chemical during food preparation or as an additive. The state of California has also introduced a bill banning its use. Opponents argue the FDA’s threshold was based on coffee consumption from decades past. Today, consumers drink more coffee than ever, theoretically raising their exposure to chemical residue.

If the FDA does take action, this wouldn’t mean the end of decaf. Other decaffeination methods exist, including one using carbon dioxide that can strip caffeine from the bean without the use of chemicals.

According to Food & Wine, consumers who have anxiety about the chemical can reference testing done by the Clean Label Project, which tests consumer products for the presence of harmful chemicals. Coffee from Starbucks and Dunkin’, for example, demonstrated no trace of methylene chloride. Coffee labels may also state that the product is solvent-free or organic, which would preclude use of the chemical.

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