Just about every coffee drinker has asked themselves at least once… “What IS the real difference with decaf and regular coffee? Which coffee is better for me?”

Well, since you’ve found your way here, it’s likely because you’re curious about these questions. Or, maybe you’re already a fan of decaf and just want to inform yourself to better respond to the coffee snobs of the world.

So, let’s break it down into four areas:

What is caffeine?

How is caffeine removed from coffee?

Is there caffeine in decaf coffee?

Does decaf coffee give you energy?

First, just what IS caffeine anyway?

We’ve all had those mornings where we wake up feeling like a sleepwalking zombie. We drag our feet out of bed, to the kitchen, and stop right in front of our beloved coffee machine to brew up a cup of instant wakefulness.

After the first few sips, slowly the fog in our minds begins to lift. By the time we finish our first cup, we’re starting to feel like a functional human being again.

Why is this?

Mostly because of a magical little drug that goes by the name of; caffeine.


Caffeine is a natural stimulant found in many plants. Coffee, tea, and cacao plants being the most well-known. It stimulates our brain and central nervous system, causing us to stay alert and kick drowsiness to the curb!

How exactly does it work? For a deeper dive on this, check out our post on how caffeine affects our brain!

How is caffeine removed from coffee?

As they say…

There’s more than one way to skin a cat

(a reference to catfish for all you kitty lovers out there)

There’s also more than one way to remove caffeine from coffee.

While there are currently at least 5 different ways to remove caffeine from coffee, here we’ll explore the two most widely used methods; direct solvent process and Swiss water process.

Direct Solvent Process

The traditional (and still most popular way) to remove caffeine from coffee is called the direct solvent process.

This process was first discovered as a sort of “happy accident” over 100 years ago and brought to market under the brand name Kaffee HAG. The overall process of this decaffeination method has’t changed much since its development.


Vintage cans of the first decaf coffee brought to market – Kaffee HAG – photo: Simon Cope

As the name implies, green, unroasted beans come into direct contact with some type of chemical solvent which removes more than 95% of the natural caffeine.

For most of the beans that have been decaffeinated using this process over the last 100 years, the solvent of choice was… benzene (a well known dangerous carcinogen).

Today the chemicals used are more benign, yet still questionable.

Methylene chloride, (yes, the same chemical found in paint strippers) , dichloromethane or ethyl acetate are mixed with water to create a caffeine removing solvent bath for the green coffee beans.

The green coffee beans are first steamed to open up their pours, allowing caffeine to be more easily extracted. Next they’re repeatedly soaked in their chemical solvent bath for around 10 hours. Rinsed and dried, they’re then ready to be sent out for roasting.

The chemicals in this solution are what extract the caffeine molecules from the coffee beans. Unfortunately, chemically processed decaf beans tend to be stripped of much of their natural oils and antioxidants.

Is the Direct Solvent Process Safe for Consumption?

Now I know you’ll hear “knowledgeable” critics say that this process is completely safe and all of the solvents are removed in the heating and roasting process… yada yada


And yet, just last year the Clean Label Project tested 24 major brands of decaf coffee and found detectable levels of methylene chloride in at least 10.. yikes!

While probably not as toxic as benzene, this chemical is still nothing you want to be consuming any amount of if possible. The OCA has an in depth article on this subject here.

Around 70 % of all decaf beans on the market are processes using this method.

After all that you might be thinking, why even drink decaf considering the potential risks?

Luckily, in 1933 an alternative method that only uses water to remove caffeine as developed.

Swiss Water Decaf Process

The Swiss Water Process does not use any chemicals, and is thereby able to retain more of the natural flavors and antioxidants you’d get with regular coffee. So not only does it taste better than traditional decaf, but is also a healthier and more environmentally conscious product.

The method uses a charcoal filter in the first round of decaffeination. This charcoal filter traps most of the caffeine molecules, while still leaving behind the sugars, oils, and other components in coffee that give it its rich flavor and aroma.

This now leaves us with a caffeine-free coffee flavored water called Green Coffee Extract or GCE.

The now flavorless, caffeine-free beans are then discarded. The flavorsome GCE water is then reused in the next round of decaffeination.

It goes through the same charcoal filter.

Instead of being left with flavorless beans, it leaves behind a delightful batch of decaffeinated and fully chemical-free coffee beans.

Is there caffeine in decaf coffee?

Sorry to be a bubble burster, but that cup of decaf coffee you’re drinking is not completely caffeine-free.

Why? Because it is difficult remove all of the caffeine from a coffee bean. The level of decaffeination required can differ by country.

In the US, decaf coffee is required to have no more than 3% of normal caffeine levels. In Canada, to sell coffee labeled as decaffeinated, it must contain no more than 0.1% caffeine.

However, don’t be too discouraged by that fact!

A regular cup of joe may contain about 95 to 200mg of caffeine per 12-ounce cup. On the other hand, a cup of decaf coffee in the US will still contain about 2 to 15mg of caffeine for an 8-ounce brewed coffee.

So, while decaf coffee is not completely caffeine-free as most people may believe, it’s a great alternative for those who are looking to cut down on their caffeine intake.

Does decaf coffee give you energy?

Since even decaf coffee contains some caffeine in it, could it be possible that even a tiny amount of caffeine would still give us a similar amount of energy that regular coffee does?

Scientifically, that would be a kind of yes. But you would need to consume at least 5 to 10 cups of decaf coffee to match the caffeine content found in 1 to 2 cups of regular coffee. Psychologically, that would be a resounding YES.

A study was done at the University of Toronto, where they discovered that just thinking about a warm cup of coffee can produce reactions in the brain similar to when you consume caffeine.

Furthermore, a 2011 study done at the University of East London showed that volunteers did better on an attention test when told they had consumed coffee, regardless of whether it was regular or decaf.

This reaction to the caffeine was due to the placebo effect. Drinkers can believe (even sub-consciously) in the power of caffeine so much that it has a measurable effect on their brain.

Death before decaf?


At the end of the day, it’s really up to your own personal preferences, taste requirements and sensitivity to caffeine on whether to drink decaf or regular coffee.

If you drink coffee mainly for its effects and want the best possible tasting cup of java, drink regular coffee. If you’re trying to cut down on your caffeine intake or just straight up have a low tolerance for caffeine, try a high quality decaf.

Hopefully now some of you decaf haters just might be willing to give that next cup of decaffeinated coffee a shot!

What’s your relationship with caffeine? Are you one of those who’s never considered drinking decaf, thinking.. what’s the point?!?

Sound off in the comments below!

About the Author

Jonnie Coffee

Hi, I'm Jonnie Coffee. As a researcher and artist with a massive passion for all things related to coffee, I started this blog as a "digital homage" to my favorite beverage. Feel free to contact me if you have any comments, questions, suggestions, or even, just for some coffee talk.

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