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Decaffeinated Coffee

A typical 5 ounce cup of drip coffee contains 60 180 mg of caffeine while the same cup of decaffeinated coffee contains 2 5 mg of caffeine. One ounce of espresso, the coffee made famous for its supposed high caffeine content, only contains 30 50 mg of caffeine. A typical 12 ounce soda, depending on the manufacturer, contains 38 46 mg of caffeine.

Decaffeination processes are performed on unroasted (green) beans, but the methods vary somewhat. It generally starts with steaming beans to soften them. They are then rinsed in a solvent that contains as much of the chemical composition of coffee as possible without also containing the caffeine in a soluble form. The process is repeated anywhere from 8 to 12 times until it meets the international standard of having removed 97% of the caffeine in the beans or the EU standard of having the beans 99.9% caffeine free by mass. Coffee contains over 400 chemicals important to the taste and aroma of the final drink; and because of the complexity of coffee, no physical process or chemical reaction will remove only caffeine while leaving the other chemicals at their original concentrations. In other words, you can-not decaffeinate coffee without affecting the flavor and aroma of the final product, your cup of coffee.

There have been long term concerns about decaffeinated coffee and cancer, mostly because of some of the chemicals used in the some decaffeination processes. Methylene chloride is a suspected carcinogen and researchers have tried to link its use in decaffeination with cancer but have found no correlation, most likely because any methylene chloride that may be left in the coffee bean is destroyed by the coffee brewing process.

Decaffeinated coffee should be more correctly referred to as low-caffeine coffee because all brands of decaffeinated coffee still contain some caffeine. Coffee beans naturally contain from 1% 2% caffeine and even after removing 97% of the caffeine from the beans, 3% of the original caffeine remains behind. The remaining caffeine concentration can be high enough that drinking five to ten cups of decaffeinated coffee could deliver as much caffeine as would one or two cups of regular coffee. Most of the caffeine removed from coffee beans is sold to soft drink manufacturers. In other words, we take the time & trouble to remove caffeine from our coffee and then we consume the very same caffeine in the soft drinks we drink.

Scientists discovered a caffeine free coffee plant in 2004. Maybe sometime in the not so distant future we will have truly natural, caffeine free coffee but until then we are stuck with one of several processes that produce a reasonable decaffeinated cup of coffee.

Swiss water process

The Swiss Water Process is a method of decaffeinating coffee beans that was developed by the Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company. To decaffeinate the coffee bean by the Swiss Water method, a batch of green (unroasted) beans is soaked in hot water, releasing caffeine. This process is done until all the caffeine and coffee solids are released into the water then the beans are then discarded. Next, the water passes through a carbon filter which traps the caffeine molecules but allows the water and the coffee solids to pass through. The caffeine-free water which comes through, known as "flavor-charged" water by the company, is then put in a similar filtration device, and new coffee beans are added. But this time the flavor-charged water cannot remove any of the coffee solids from the new beans and only the caffeine is released. The process repeats, filtering out all the caffeine until the beans are 99.9% caffeine free. These beans are removed and dried, and thus retain most of their flavor and aroma.

Direct method

In the direct method the coffee beans are steamed for 30 minutes and then repeatedly rinsed with methylene chloride or ethyl acetate for about 10 hours. The solvent is then drained away and the beans steamed for an additional 10 hours to remove any residual solvent. Sometimes coffees which are decaffeinated using ethyl acetate are referred to as naturally process because ethyl acetate can be derived from various fruits or vegetables but because of the volume needed, the chemical is synthetically derived.

Indirect method

In the indirect method beans are soaked in hot water for several hours, essentially making a strong pot of coffee. Then the beans are removed and methylene chloride or ethyl acetate is used to extract the caffeine from the water. The same water is recycled through this two-step process with new batches of beans. Equilibrium is reached after several cycles, where the water and the beans have a similar composition except for the caffeine. After this point, the caffeine is the only material removed from the beans, so no coffee strength or other flavorings are lost. Because water is used in the initial phase of this process, sometimes indirect method decaffeination is referred to as "water processed" even though chemicals are used.

CO2/O2 process

With the CO2 process, pre-steamed beans are soaked in a liquid bath of carbon dioxide at a pressure of 73 to 300 atmospheres (1000 4500 PSI). After a thorough soaking, the pressure is reduced allowing the CO2 to evaporate, or the pressurized CO2 is run through a water or charcoal filter to remove the caffeine. The carbon dioxide is then used on another batch of beans. This same process can also be done with oxygen. This process has the advantage that it avoids the use of potentially toxic solvents.

Triglyceride process

Green coffee beans are soaked in a hot water/coffee solution to draw the caffeine to the surface of the beans. Next, the beans are transferred to another container and immersed in coffee oils that were obtained from spent coffee grounds. After several hours of high temperatures, the triglycerides in the oils remove the caffeine, but not the flavor elements, from the beans. The beans are separated from the oils and dried. The caffeine is removed from the oils, which are reused to decaffeinate another batch of beans. This is a direct contact method of decaffeination.