Ask Eartha: Decaffeination dependent on where you get your coffee |

Ask Eartha: Decaffeination dependent on where you get your coffee

Different coffee beans have different caffeine levels. If you want to try and flucctuate your intake try different beans.
Getty Images / Ingram Publishing | Ingram Publishing

Dear Eartha,

What is the difference between “decaffeinated” and “naturally decaffeinated” coffee, and what happens to the caffeine once it’s removed from coffee?

— Ben, Frisco

Caffeine is a natural stimulus found in numerous plants, generally acts as a natural pesticide protecting the plant from insects and is found in chocolate, tea and coffee. It is estimated that 90 percent of Americans consume caffeine daily. If you are looking for a truly “natural” cup of coffee, aficionados will tell you that caffeinated coffee is your only choice because all decaffeinated coffees are processed and so are not “natural.” However, about 10 percent of Americans prefer decaffeinated coffee for health or wellness reasons.

Because coffee contains approximately 1,000 chemicals important to taste and aroma, it’s difficult to separate the caffeine. There are two main ways caffeine is removed: solvent-based and non-solvent based processes. The solvent-based method uses either methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. Neither is considered a health risk after the beans are roasted. Ethyl acetate exists in minute quantities in ripening fruits thus coffee decaffeinated is often labeled as “naturally” decaffeinated. However, the cost and impracticability of gathering natural ethyl aerate means a synthetic is used bringing into question the “natural” label.

There is a chemical-free decaffeination process called the “Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Method.” In this process, liquid CO2 is forced into the coffee beans at pressures of 1,000 pounds per-square-inch to extract the caffeine. The caffeine laden CO2 is then transferred to another container where the pressure is released, and the CO2 returns to its gaseous state, leaving the caffeine behind. This method is primarily used to decaffeinate large quantities of commercial-grade, less-exotic coffee found in grocery stores.

In 2007, Consumer Reports studied cups of decaffeinated coffee from popular chains. Most cups had less than 5 milligrams of caffeine; one cup from Dunkin Donuts had a stunning 32 milligrams of caffeine. Surprisingly, decaf cups from McDonalds consistently had the least milligrams of caffeine.

If you want a hot drink with no caffeine at all, it’s best to find a beverage that never had caffeine to start — like an herbal tea. Over the years, the herbal-tea industry has expanded, and one of the largest and most well-known companies, Celestial Seasonings, is located in Boulder. They offer free factory tours showing how raw ingredients become the finished products available in grocery stores.

Chemical-free water decaffeination was pioneered in Switzerland in 1933. The Swiss Water Company’s facility is the only one in the world certified organic and Kosher and relies on solubility and osmosis to decaffeinate coffee beans. This method is used almost exclusively for decaffeination of organic coffee. It meets a 99.9-percnt caffeine-free test exceeding FDA regulations which state only 97 percent of the original caffeine must be removed from the bean to be considered “decaffeinated.”

Most American blends of coffee contain the Arabica bean and the Robusta bean (which contains twice the caffeine of Arabica beans). After 97 percent of the caffeine is removed to meet the FDA regulations, the Robusta bean has more caffeine left over than the Arabic bean, which leads to a large variance of caffeine among brands. The average 12-ounce cup of decaf coffee usually contains between 3 and 18 milligrams of caffeine. In comparison, an 8.4 ounce can of Red Bull contains 80 milligrams. And the average amount of caffeine in a regular coffee varies between 140 and 300 mg. So if you are looking for less caffeine, check out the type of beans used on the coffee you are drinking.

Going back to caffeine, what happens to the raw substance once it’s removed from the coffee bean? It is sold to the beverage and diet-pill industries and cosmetic companies — the largest consumers of caffeine thanks to a new trend of caffeine in cosmetics. It’s believed to do everything from reduce cellulite to enhance lips. The three main ways caffeine works on the skin is as a vasoconstrictor, an antioxidant and a diuretic, and it can be found in body wash, soap, facial scrubs, lipstick, facial toners, eye creams and body creams.

Fun fact: There is not enough naturally-produced caffeine to meet the beverage, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, so it is also made artificially. One of the major producers of artificial caffeine is China. They use heat and pressure to rearrange carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen into the molecular structure of caffeine. Most of the caffeine used in the beverage industry (think Red Bull, Coca Cola and Pepsi) uses this synthetic version.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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