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How Much Caffeine Is Really In A Cup Of Decaf Coffee?

coffee-shop-wooden-sign

People who are caffeine-sensitive or looking to reduce their caffeine intake, use decaffeinated, or decaf, coffee as an alternative. I especially like to make decaf cold coffee. That way I can indulge in several 16 oz cups and obtain all the antioxidants found in coffee without becoming overstimulated. 

However, decaf coffee still contains some caffeine. USDA regulations stipulate that decaf should not exceed 0.10 percent caffeine on a dry basis in the package. Comparisons between brewed regular and decaf coffee show that decaf appears to have at least 97% of the caffeine removed.

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and is probably the most commonly used psychoactive substance in the world. For example, a 12-ounce (354 ml) cup of coffee containing 180 mg of caffeine would have about 5.4 mg of caffeine if it were decaffeinated.

Caffeine content in decaf coffee depends on the type of bean and the decaffeination process.  Decaf coffee beans are typically made by one of three methods–water, organic solvents or carbon dioxide. 

How Coffee Is Decaffeinated

All decaffeination methods soak or steam green, unroasted coffee beans until the caffeine is dissolved or until the pores of the beans are opened. Then the caffeine is extracted.

woman-holding-green-coffee

Here’s a brief overview of the three decaffeination processes:

  • Solvent-based process: uses a combination of methylene chloride, ethyl acetate, and water to create a solvent that extracts the caffeine. The chemicals evaporate during the process and are not found in the final coffee bean.
  • Swiss water process: the only organic method of decaffeinating coffee, it relies on osmosis to extract caffeine and guarantees a 99.9% decaffeinated end product.
  • Carbon dioxide process: this newest method uses carbon dioxide (CO2), which is naturally found in coffee, to remove the caffeine and leave other flavor compounds intact. It is efficient but it’s also the most expensive.

Type & Origin Of Roast Affects Flavor

The caffeine content of your decaf coffee likely depends on where your coffee is from. The type of roasted coffee you buy affects the flavor more than the decaffeination method.  However, the decaffeination process does alter the smell and taste of coffee, with the result having a milder flavor and different color. 

It Takes Alotta Decaf To Equal 2 Regular Cups 

Researchers suggest that drinking 5–10 cups of decaf coffee could accumulate the amount of caffeine in 1–2 cups of regular, caffeinated coffee. On average, an 8-ounce (236 ml) cup of decaf coffee contains up to 7 mg of caffeine, whereas a cup of regular coffee provides 70–140 mg.

While even 7 mg of caffeine may seem low, it could be of concern for those who have been advised to cut their intake due to kidney disease, anxiety disorders or caffeine sensitivity.  For susceptible individuals, even small amounts of caffeine could increase agitation, anxiety, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Caffeine Content of Popular Coffee Chains

One study analyzed 16-ounce (473-ml) cups of drip-brewed decaf coffee from nine US chains or local coffee houses. All but one contained 8.6–13.9 mg caffeine, with an average of 9.4 mg per 16-ounce (473-ml) cup. In comparison, an average 16-ounce (473-ml) cup of regular coffee packs approximately 188 mg of caffeine.

The researchers also purchased Starbucks decaffeinated espresso and brewed coffee and measured their caffeine content. The decaf espresso contained 3–15.8 mg per shot, while the decaf coffee had 12–13.4 mg of caffeine per 16-ounce (473-ml) serving.

Starbucks cups in a container

Here is a comparison of popular decaf coffees and their caffeine content from https://www.caffeineinformer.com/

Brewed Decaf CoffeeSmall MediumLarge
Instant2.5 mg/8oz5 mg /16 oz6.3 mg/20 oz
Home brewed5.6 mg/8oz11.2 mg/16 oz14 mg/20 oz
Starbucks15 mg/12 oz25 mg/16 oz30 mg/20 oz
Caribou4mg/8 oz5mg/12 oz6 mg/16 oz
Dunkin Donuts7 mg/10 oz10 mg/14 oz15 mg/20 oz
McCafe (McDonald’s)8 mg/12 oz11 mg/16 oz14 mg/21 oz
Tim Horton’s6 mg/8 oz9 mg/15 oz12 mg/18 oz

To be safe, check the caffeine content of your favorite brew at your favorite coffee shop, especially if you consume multiple cups of decaf each day.

While many people can enjoy higher amounts of caffeine, some people need to avoid it due to the side effects. Anyone who suffers from insomnia, anxiety, headaches, irritability, jitters, nausea or increased blood pressure after consuming caffeine should consider decaf–if they decide to drink coffee at all.

Similarly, people with certain medical conditions might require caffeine-restricted diets. For example, if they take medications that are broken down in the liver and interact with caffeine. Recent research suggests that your genetics influence how you respond to caffeine.

Additionally, caffeine is identified as a possible trigger for heartburn. Therefore, people who experience heartburn, also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), may need to reduce their caffeine intake. However, it’s important to know that drinking a decaf dark roast, which is lower in caffeine and often less acidic, may be your best option. I particularly like Sumatran coffee roasted until it’s almost black.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised to limit their caffeine intake because caffeine metabolism is slower during pregnancy. Caffeine and its metabolites pass freely across the placenta into a fetus. Children and adolescents should also limit daily caffeine consumption because of its effect on the developing central nervous system. (Source)

Darker roasts and instant decaf coffees usually rank lower in caffeine and may be a suitable way of enjoying your cup of joe without the caffeine.

What about you? Do you always go decaf or are you one of the many caffeine chuggers?

Ellie Strand

I'm a geriatric nurse practitioner--in both senses of the word--disabled/retired with a devastating, debilitating neuro-immune-endocrine disease called ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome). All that aside, I'm living as well as I can with it.

  • Lane Onson says:

    Thanks for this article. It’s very informative.

    • Ellie Strand says:

      Thanks for commenting, Lane.
      Because of my disability I drink decaf coffee 99% of the time. I thought the information would be interesting for others, too. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading it.

  • Rob says:

    I have to say that I am not a coffee drinker but my wife is. She always has to have decaf coffee whether at home or on the road. I’ve often wondered to myself about how does she know she’s really getting decaf?
    Now while I don’t know the difference between the coffees, if I wanted decaf it would be for a good reason and if I didn’t get it? It would bother me. Do you think that if the coffee you’re getting is so called “decaf” would you know and how?

    • Ellie Strand says:

      Thanks for your questions, Rob.
      I don’t know of any way to tell if you really are getting decaf without drinking and then noticing the effect on your body. It would be nice to have a simple visual test for caffeine, wouldn’t it?
      Until someone develops one I’m advising people to get to know their coffee seller and determine if they can trust them.
      I buy my coffee from a small Minnesota roaster that sources organic and Fair Trade coffees. They roast as the order is placed so the beans are as fresh as possible.

  • Fran Kelso says:

    Interesting article. I wanted to find out more about decaf coffee as I was told by my health provider to stop drinking it. I miss my coffee, and am wondering if perhaps a cup of decaf in the morning might be the answer. Thanks so much for posting this information.

    • Ellie Strand says:

      I agree with you. A cup–even two–in the morning would be a great substitute, Fran.
      Frankly, I can’t tell the difference between caffeinated and decaf coffee when it comes to taste. When I was still working as a Nurse Practitioner, I advised several of my patients to cut way back on caffeine, so I know where you are coming from. In fact, that was the reasoning behind this post. 😉
      Thanks for commenting and enjoy your “new” coffee experience!

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