May 29, 2024 - News

California lawmakers are raising alarms about safety of decaf coffee

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

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A California bill is the latest to raise the alarm on the most common way 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 6% of American adults in the western U.S. drank decaf coffee in the past day, according to the National Coffee Association.

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

  • Methylene chloride is considered a potential carcinogen by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates that when methylene chloride is used as a solvent to decaffeinate coffee, exposure to residues 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.

  • Coffee beans are then washed, steamed and roasted at temperatures that evaporate the liquids used, according to the NCA.
  • This process removes about 97% or more of the caffeine in coffee beans — so instead of 95 mg of caffeine in a cup, it's more like 2 mg.

The latest: The California State Assembly this month updated proposed legislation about methylene chloride, nicknamed the Clean Coffee Act.

  • The California bill calls for the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to study the health impacts of methylene chloride and update its "no significant risk level and its maximum allowable level" of the chemical.
  • Yes, but: The bill is being held by the Assembly Appropriations Committee due to state costs, so it likely won't be reconsidered until the next legislation session next year.

Earlier this year, groups including the Environmental Defense Fund brought a petition to the FDA to ban methylene chloride in food.

Reality check: The Clean Label Project, part of the FDA petition, concluded that the amount of methylene chloride in decaf coffee was below the 10-parts-per-million FDA limit.

  • Yes, but: The FDA made that decaf regulation 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.

What they're saying: "We have a responsibility to tell the consumer that this is what they're consuming. They can make a decision and decide, 'It's not 10 parts per million, it's not a big problem.' For us, it is a problem," says California State Rep. Eloise Gómez Reyes, who proposed the bill.

What we're watching: The California bill and FDA petition could encourage consumers to seek out decaf made from other methods, like the Swiss Water Process.

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