May 21, 2024 - Health

The decaf coffee debate: Why some groups and lawmakers are raising alarms

Illustration of a magnifying glass going over a paper coffee cup to reveal the coffee underneath

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Some environmental activist groups and lawmakers are worried about the most common method used to decaffeinate coffee.

Why it matters: Drinking decaf coffee has long been considered a safe way to enjoy a cup of joe for those cutting back on caffeine.

  • About 7% of American adults drank a decaf coffee in the past day, according to the National Coffee Association.

State of play: Jordan G.L. Hardin, director of food & beverage at Alfred Coffee, says he's recently seen "a very tiny bump in decaf."

  • As more Americans get comfortable with alternative food and drink options that taste like the stuff they're familiar with, many are questioning the safety and eco-friendliness of their old consumption habits.
  • "We have received quite a few inquiries about how our decaf is processed in the last couple months," Hardin says.
  • Alfred shops (along with Peet's and others) use the chemical-free decaffeination process known as Swiss Water Process, which "has given customers more confidence to order it — or half-cafs, at least," he tells Axios.

Between the lines: The European method of making decaf coffee is the one that most coffee companies use (Starbucks calls it the "direct contact method"), and it typically involves a controversial chemical: methylene chloride.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates methylene chloride when it is used to decaffeinate coffee. Exposure to residues of it must not exceed 10 parts per million.

How it works: In the European method, coffee beans are steamed, rinsed with methylene chloride, and then the liquid (along with much of the caffeine) is removed.

  • The coffee beans are then washed, steamed and roasted at temperatures that cause the liquids to evaporate, according to the National Coffee Association.
  • This process removes about 97% or more of the caffeine in coffee beans — so instead of 96 mg of caffeine in a cup, it's more like 2 mg.

The latest: Groups including the Environmental Defense Fund petitioned the FDA this year to ban the use of methylene chloride in food, and a bill in the California Assembly calls for the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to study the health impacts of methylene chloride.

What they're saying: "It should be concerning to everyone that pregnant women and those with health issues looking to cut back on caffeine are unknowingly sipping trace amounts of methylene chloride in their decaf coffee," says Jaclyn Bowen, the executive director of the Clean Label Project, which signed onto the FDA petition.

The other side: National Coffee Association president and CEO Bill Murray says he hasn't seen compelling evidence from environmental groups that the European method is harmful and should be banned.

Reality check: The Clean Label Project concluded in a double-blind test: The amount of methylene chloride present in decaf coffee was below the 10-parts-per-million FDA limit.

Yes, but: The FDA made that decaf ruling back in 1985, when the agency also proposed banning the use of methylene chloride in hair sprays and cosmetics because the chemical appeared to be carcinogenic to animals by inhalation.

  • In April of this year, the EPA finalized a new ban on methylene chloride in a separate area: It's now prohibited in industrial and commercial use, including paint removers.

What we're watching: The FDA hasn't yet responded to the petition.

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