I wrote here on the benefits (and relative risks) associated with drinking coffee, and here on the studies showing that overall, coffee consumption decreases the risk of chronic disease.

Yet caffeine certainly has its drawbacks. In addition to sex hormone disruption, it indirectly forces the adrenals to pump out additional adrenaline, perpetuating adrenal fatigue and potentially worsening anxiety and insomnia for those who are susceptible.   

So is decaffeinated coffee a good solution? Well… it depends on the process used for decaffeination.

The Decaf Processes

There are several possible methods for removing caffeine from coffee beans. The first step is always the same though: it involves swelling the green coffee beans with water or steam.

The next step, the extraction process, is what varies.

The Direct or Indirect method are the ones to avoid — these involve solvents, including ethyl acetate or methylene chloride.

Methylene chloride is a potential carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). It’s also been associated with angina (chest pain), and, at high levels of exposure, symptoms such as mental confusion, lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, and headache. Of course almost no one reports such symptoms from a cup or two of decaf coffee, but if acute exposure can cause these symptoms, then prolonged exposure in small doses at a time is also probably unhealthy.

Ethyl acetate, in high concentrations, can cause depression of the central nervous system, and congestion in the liver and kidneys.

Alternative processes include the Swiss Water process, the CO2 process, and the triglyceride process. The latter may or may not involve chemicals.

The last step in the process involves drying the beans, as of course they are still swollen with water after the extraction process.

The Swiss Water Process

After swelling the beans with water, in the Swiss Water process, they pass through a carbon filter made from charcoal. I love charcoal as a detoxification agent in the body as well — activated charcoal capsules are a great addition to a sauna detoxification protocol, and they also are a good binder for mold elimination. Charcoal binds most anything, which is why it’s still used for acute poisoning in ERs. Caffeine, it seems, is no exception: once exposed to charcoal, especially with several passes, it gets sucked right out.

The first batch of beans exposed to the carbon filter likewise loses its flavor, unfortunately—but subsequent batches do not.

This process sometimes uses carbon dioxide as a solvent (it turns to liquid under high pressure conditions) but not always. In any case, CO2 is not objectionable as far as solvents go. 

The Triglyceride Process

In this process, after soaking the beans, they are then soaked in coffee oil. This is because caffeine is lipophilic—that is, it absorbs well into fat molecules, and not as well into water molecules (so you see, we don’t get as much caffeine from a regular cup of coffee as the beans are capable of delivering!) The oil therefore pulls the caffeine from the beans, and the process preserves the flavor as well.

Since the oil is pricey, it’s usually reused for subsequent batches—but of course, the caffeine must first be removed from the oil before it is reused. Sometimes this process involves the same solvents mentioned above, and sometimes it utilizes charcoal filters—so knowing the triglyceride process was used for decaffeination isn’t enough information to determine whether or not the beans are a good choice.

Which Types of Decaf Coffee Are Safe?

The best rule of thumb for decaf coffee is really to go organic. This guarantees that no chemicals have been used, whichever process is utilized.

But if you have a favorite brand, and it’s not necessarily organic, you might have to do a little digging, and companies are not required to disclose their decaffeination process. Here’s three of the big ones. 

The Upshot

If you prefer decaf coffee (and if you drink more than two cups of coffee per day, anything in excess of that should be decaf to avoid adrenal or hormonal disruption), make sure you’re choosing a chemical-free decaf option. This becomes more important the more of it you drink, of course!