Coffee, ally and enemy at the same time. Fundamental help to keep your eyes open at work when the days get long and boring, but also useful for finding a boost of energy when the days are characterized by a tight routine. Well, sometimes it’s impossible resist without a coffee (but also two, three, four…), but the bitter drink is always pointed at, between old studies that demonized its effects (it creates addiction, tiring the heart) to many different new studies that connect to a lower risk of disease, including heart disease and some types of cancer. Whenever there are pros, however, there are also cons: caffeine is also linked to anxiety and sleep problems. Its energizing thrill, in fact, can cause sleepless nights, accelerated heartbeat and therefore a feeling of anxiety.
By balancing costs and benefits, more and more people are opting for the decaffeinated coffee, sleep-friendly and perfect for keeping the post-coffee ritual alive because it doesn’t cause nervousness. However, even decaffeinated coffee has long been placed in the spotlight of scholars: according to some studies it is bad for your health, according to others it is definitely not. In short, where is the truth? Decaffeinated coffee is good or bad, definitely? These are the news that clarify – finally! – any doubts about it.
The history of decaffeinated coffee and why, for a time, it was not recommended
To understand why decaffeinated coffee has long been demonized we have to go back in history and retrace a few steps. Let’s jump to the beginning of the 1900s, when the German trader Ludwig Roselius discovered decaffeinated coffee by chance: a load of coffee beans fell into the sea during transport and the salt water was able to extract the caffeine naturally. Roselius became passionate about the variant and after a few years he patented the first commercial system to decaffeinate the precious beans which, instead of using salt water, made use of a powerful chemical solvent called benzene. It wasn’t known at the time, but today we know that this substance is dangerous even if inhaled even in very small quantities: it irritates the eyes and respiratory tract, causes drowsiness, dizziness and headaches and skin rashes. In high doses and in the long term it is even more dangerous: Causes cancer, blood disorders, and fetal development problems during pregnancy.
In short, once the risk related to the use of benzene was discovered, decaffeinated coffee could only be demonized and frighten consumers. Luckily things have changed – and by a lot, but not in all cases: many large producers use safer decaffeination methods todaybut many are still choosing powerful chemicals to eliminate caffeine.
The most popular decaffeination methods today
Today they are mostly used three methods to remove caffeine from coffee beans: with a chemical solvent, with liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) and with water. In all three cases, the still green, unroasted coffee beans are immersed in water and steamed until the caffeine dissolves and the “pores” of the beans eliminate it. Methods that use water and liquid carbon dioxide are considered safe because they do not involve dangerous synthetic chemicals, but then there are those who use ethyl acetate (naturally present in some fruits) and methylene chloride (commonly used in industrial applications such as adhesives, paints and pharmaceuticals) to achieve the same result.
The process with water is more expensive and more difficult to produce on a large scale, so it comes reserved for high-end cafés.
So is decaffeinated coffee safe or does it involve risks?
In short, is it safe to drink decaffeinated coffee or it is bad for your health? The experts contacted by Consumer Reports clarify our ideas once and for all: if we can choose, better to always use a decaffeinated obtained with the process based on water or liquid carbon dioxide which pose no health risk. How to distinguish them? One of the parameters is the price: the decaffeinated coffees thus obtained cost significantly more and are generally produced by major brands that can invest in more expensive production processes. Instead of buying what we find in the supermarket for a few euros, it’s better to invest a little more and go to a roaster to find them without fail or do some research on the web. In any case, decafs labeled organic are safer.
For decaffeinated coffees obtained with methylene chlorideHowever, the issue is still controversial. The substance used, if inhaled in small doses, can cause coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, while higher doses can cause dizziness, headache, confusion, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and it has been found that in animals (we do not speak of human studies) can cause liver and lung cancer. NO PANIC: the traces present in decaffeinated coffee, according to the competent bodies and experts, however, they are too small to affect our health – we are talking about no more than 10 parts per million. And what about decafs made with ethyl acetate? For the experts, the argument is the same: the substance in high doses can involve risks, but on decaffeinated we find such insignificant traces as to not cause concern.
The trendy alternatives to decaf
Today it is also easy to find everywhere more “natural” alternatives to decaffeinated coffee such as, for example, preparations based on ancient medicinal herbs, turmeric or so-called superfoods. Ginseng and moringa in the form of pseudo-coffee are the first to conquer the market, but maca, obtained from the root of the plant, is also widespread and promises a boost of energy similar to that of coffee. In short, the natural alternatives to coffee and decaffeinatedall passed off as super healthy and safe, are certainly not miracles in liquid form.
Many of these, once ultra-processed to be processed and made into a drink, retain very few healthy properties, as confirmed by the experts questioned by the BBC. In practice they rarely have a real energizing and healthy effect, but very often they focus on the suggestion of those who drink them. In case of drinks with some substances, such as turmericthere may also be contraindications: they are not indicated for pregnant women, for example.