This article is part of the series, Beneath the Surface: What’s in Everyday Consumer Products. Articles in this series will examine how prevalent synthetic chemicals are in everyday products, and the consequences of their use to our health and our environment.
I drink at least 48-ounces of brewed, organic and buzz-free coffee each day. I’m a heavy decaf coffee drinker which is why I’m often asked if it’s safe to drink decaf. This safety question lingers because every few years an article surfaces questioning the toxicity of methylene chloride – the chemical most-oft used to extract caffeine from coffee beans. Methylene Chloride is currently listed as a possible carcinogen, and its primary use is as a paint solvent.
The short answer is that minute traces of methylene chloride can legally be found in decaf coffee, but the residue amounts are minuscule, it’s probably harmless. The potential for trace chemical residue may be reason enough for some to choose organic coffee which must use the non-chemical Swiss Water decaffeination process. But a more important reason to buy organically-grown coffee is that this label means that no chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used to grow the coffee beans. That’s better in the long run for birds, butterflies, workers and our planet.
A few interesting facts about decaf coffee:
- Decaf coffee has trace caffeine, legally about 3 percent or less.
- Cheaper Robusta beans contain more than twice the caffeine than fancier Arabica beans.
- Since caffeine amounts are rarely on drink labels, check out how much caffeine is in your favorite drink.
Decaffeinating Coffee Beans
There are many ways to decaffeinate coffee beans.
In short, coffee beans are directly bathed, or indirectly steamed, in:
- Water The proprietary Swiss Water method. No chemicals are used. Organic coffee uses this method.
- Methylene chloride
- Ethyl acetate
- Carbon dioxide
Ethyl acetate is found naturally in rotting fruit, but it’s cheaper to make synthetically. Since carbon dioxide and ethyl acetate can be found in nature, decaffing with these two chemicals is labeled natural. This label isn’t regulated and means nothing, really.
The is-it-safe radar is pinged because of the direct method using the solvents methylene chloride and ethyl acetate. Claimed to make better tasting decaf, this widely-used decaf process washes the beans in the solvent for hours. Caffeine attaches to the solvent and the caffeine is whisked away. The solvents are also washed away.
Because both chemicals are highly volatile and evaporate at the low temp of 104℉, it is presumed that any trace of methylene chloride or ethyl acetate is vaporized during roasting at temps as high as 400℉. The FDA has regulated the process in so far as stating that coffee can’t contain more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of the chemical residue.
Bye-bye birdies and butterflies, hello pesticides
Choosing organic coffee assures buyers that no solvents were used, but also means you’re drinking all the benefits of the organic label. Regulated by the USDA, the organic label is a stringent and sustainably-focused growing and processing method. Organic means no chemicals, no chemicals fertilizers, no pesticides, and no genetically-modified organisms. Because the barriers to label a product organic are high, organic farmers usually value sustainability and weave eco-minded principles into many facets of their business operations.
An even better coffee option is to choose organic and shade grown varieties. Traditional coffee used to be grown in forests in Africa and South America. Conventional large-scale growers in Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia and Indonesia now clear-cut forests to max out coffee yields. The loss of forests has hurt bird and butterfly migrations, and is accelerating climate change. To max yields, conventional farmers also use pesticides which are often sprayed with little regard to health protection of the workers living in mostly developing countries.
Choosing your decaf coffee based on the potential for chemical residue depends on people’s risk profiles. If you drink regular coffee, or if you can live with decaf’s residue, check out these Beneath the Surface stories covering phthalates, flame retardants, or the contaminants found in seafood and tap water.
Organic anything can be pricier, but the coffee market is so competitive that affordable organic coffees are everywhere. I buy whatever organic and shade grown coffee is the least expensive at Wegmans, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or the Giant (Nature’s Promise). To make the perfect cup, I follow Artifact Coffee’s formula. Given that I consume six cups of decaf per day, I choose the Swiss Water Process because I will never know how much methylene chloride residue I’m sipping day in and day out.
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