There are many reasons why you might choose to limit your caffeine consumption. But a hot (or iced!) cup of coffee is a part of many of our morning rituals. So you may be wondering which decaf coffee has the least caffeine? Below we go over the different processes by which decaffeinated coffee is made and answer which one has the least caffeine.
Why choose decaf?
One of the biggest reasons why you might choose to drink decaf coffee over regular coffee is caffeine sensitivity. There’s a lot of variation in how our bodies respond to caffeine. It can be a little bit different for everyone. Those who are sensitive to caffeine may experience things like heart palpitations, increased anxiety, restlessness, upset stomach, or headaches. If you have a caffeine sensitivity or intolerance but you still love the taste of coffee, decaf is your other option.
Caffeine is known to improve alertness and keep us from feeling as tired. But for some people, the effects of caffeine can be too much and lead to insomnia. Those who already experience anxiety or trouble sleeping may want to avoid regular coffee altogether and opt for decaf instead. Also, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding are often advised by their doctor to limit their caffeine intake. If you want to limit your caffeine intake or you have been advised by your doctor to do so, choose decaf! Decaf is made from coffee beans that have had at least 96% of their caffeine removed. Even without all the caffeine, it still tastes great and you don’t have to worry about the negative side effects.
How is decaf coffee made?
Decaf coffee is made by using one of three methods: the Swiss Water Process, carbon dioxide, or methylene chloride. That might all sound a bit unusual so let’s break each one down below.
Swiss Water Process
The Swiss Water Process was created in, you guessed it, Switzerland in the 1930s but wasn’t scaled to commercial production until the 80s. It’s unique in that it uses only water to decaffeinate the coffee beans. No chemicals! And how it works is pretty neat. To begin, the coffee beans are soaked in hot water in order to dissolve the caffeine. However, the hot water also dissolves other components of the beans that create the flavors and aromas we love about coffee.
So how are the flavors and aromas added back in? After soaking, the water is passed through a charcoal filter. Caffeine happens to be a rather large molecule and is caught by the filter while the other chemical components and oils are able to pass through. What’s left is called Green Coffee Extract, or GCE. The GCE is reintroduced to the beans and the process continues until almost all of the caffeine is removed. You can read more about this process here.
Carbon dioxide is all around us. It’s mainly in the air we breathe but also found in water. In addition, it’s a solvent for caffeine! In this process, carbon dioxide is used to dissolve the caffeine in coffee beans. The exact method can differ slightly between facilities but in general, here’s how it works. The beans are first soaked in water to expand their cell structures and make it easier for the caffeine to be extracted. Then the beans are exposed to supercritical (highly compressed) carbon dioxide, or CO2. At high pressure and temperature, carbon dioxide acts like both a gas and a liquid. It can reach the crevices of the beans like a gas and it dissolves the caffeine like a liquid. This process is able to leave the other components of the coffee intact so there is very little change in taste and flavor.
The most common method of decaffeination involves a chemical solvent, methylene chloride. Methylene chloride has been determined by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to be safe to use in the decaffeination process. The FDA allows for up to 10 parts per million of the solvent but the results of the manufacturer are usually lower than this amount.
First, the coffee beans are soaked in hot water to dissolve the caffeine. The flavors and oils of the coffee also dissolve. The beans are removed and the methylene chloride is added to the water to bond with the caffeine. The compound of methylene chloride and caffeine is then skimmed from the water and the beans are reintroduced to the water. This allows the beans to reabsorb much of the flavors and oils. When the coffee beans are roasted, nearly all of the methylene chloride that may have been left in the water is vaporized.
Which decaf coffee has the least caffeine?
Swiss Water Process – The Swiss Water Process used to decaffeinate coffee beans is certified 99.9% caffeine free. This makes it the decaf coffee that has the least caffeine content. If you’re trying to avoid caffeine, decaf coffee that has undergone the SWP is your best bet. We have a post dedicated to a few of our favorite Swiss Water Process coffee brands here.
Carbon dioxide – The carbon dioxide method of decaffeination results in a coffee that is between 96% and 98% caffeine free. Since the process can vary slightly, it’s unsure whether coffee beans decaffeinated by this method would be on the high or low end of that range in terms of caffeine content.
Methylene chloride – The methylene chloride method of decaffeination results in a coffee that is between 96% and 97% caffeine free. This makes it the method that is most likely to have the highest caffeine content.