Coffee is a popular beverage worldwide, and for those who want to avoid caffeine, decaf coffee is widely available.
While the stimulant qualities of caffeine are valued by many coffee drinkers, some people are sensitive to caffeine or have particular reasons for limiting it.
Coffee that has had the caffeine removed has similar effects on health. Decaf has 97% or more of the caffeine taken out through processes that can include organic solvents, water or carbon dioxide. (1)
The decaffeination process is initiated before coffee beans have been roasted, and substances like solvents are removed before heat is applied; color, taste and smell variations can sometimes occur as a result of the treatment, often making it less bitter.
Coffee normally contains between 70 and 140 mg of caffeine per cup, depending on serving size and preparation methods. (2)
Decaf coffee may not be completely free of caffeine; one study found the amount in a cup ranged between 0 mg and 7 mgs. (3)
Coffee has been fingered as a poor nutritional choice in the past, but studies show it is a rich source of antioxidants, and in some cases, it may well be the main source for individuals eating a typical Western diet. (4)
These antioxidants reduce damage in the body resulting from the presence of free radicals; research shows antioxidants like those in coffee may help reduce the risk of developing a number of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease. (7, 8)
In addition to the antioxidants, expect coffee to deliver small amounts of these nutrients as well: potassium, magnesium, sodium, calcium and phosphorus. (9) If you’re drinking several cups of coffee daily, even the low amounts can add up quickly.
There are many health benefits associated with coffee consumption, but studies don’t always analyze decaf coffee separately, so it can be difficult to make a distinction between the two when it comes to nutrition.
In addition, most research in this area has been observational in nature. This means any potential benefits cannot be proven to result from drinking coffee, but instead, are only associated with the habit.
Let’s take a look at several areas of health that may be improved by including coffee in the diet.
- Type 2 Diabetes
Both decaf and regular coffee appear to reduce the chances of developing type 2 diabetes, one of the most prevalent health issues in the modern world. In fact, each cup you drink could cut your risk by up to 7%. (10, 11)
- Coffee May Protect Liver Function
Liver enzyme levels in coffee drinkers often run lower than in people who don’t drink coffee; this could provide a protective effect on liver function. (12)
- Lower Mortality Rates
The statistical difference is small, but perhaps significant: premature death, as well as death resulting from heart disease and stroke, are lower in coffee drinkers than for those who don’t imbibe. (13)
- Stay Mentally Sharp
Cognitive function usually declines as we age, yet drinkers of both decaf and regular coffee fare better in keeping mental processes sharp than those who don’t. (14)
One study indicates the chlorogenic acid in coffee, which is present in both caffeinated and decaffeinated versions, may be responsible for this effect (17), while caffeine has been associated with a decreased risk of dementia. (18)
- Decaf Causes Less Heartburn
Reflux or heartburn is a common problem for coffee drinkers, and studies show decaf clearly reduces the incidence of this painful and irritating issue. (19)
- Lower Rates of Colorectal Cancer
Downing two or more cups of decaf daily is linked with cutting the risk of developing colorectal cancer by nearly half. (20)
Health Benefits of Regular Coffee Compared to Decaf
Most people who drink coffee regularly appreciate the effects of caffeine, which include a reduction in fatigue and an increase in alertness.
Some of the benefits associated with coffee come directly from caffeine, so drinkers of decaf won’t be able to cash in on these effects:
- Metabolic boost and increased levels of fat-burning (21)
- Better memory function, mental capacity and reaction time (22)
- Improved athletic performance (23)
- Decreased risk of liver cirrhosis and end stage liver damage (24)
- Less chance of experiencing suicidal thoughts and mild depression for women (25)
In view of the extensive research done with regular coffee as compared to studies with decaf, new information in regard to potential benefits of drinking decaf may surface in the future.
Choosing Regular or Decaf Coffee
Tolerance for caffeine is the main issue when it comes to coffee drinking. Individuals vary greatly in reactions to caffeine.
Some people may be able to drink half a dozen cups of caffeinated coffee daily without any ill effects, while others might feel jittery or overstimulated with a single cup.
Caffeine affects the central nervous system and sensitive individuals might experience any or all of these symptoms when they consume excessive amounts: heart arrhythmia, restlessness, insomnia, digestive problems or anxiety.
Pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding infants are usually advised to limit caffeine intake, and health authorities recommend that children, teenagers, and anyone who has trouble getting enough good quality sleep should avoid caffeine. (26)
Caffeine can also interact negatively with certain medications, so it’s important to speak with your doctor to pinpoint how it may impact the effects of prescription medications you may currently be taking.
Coffee is more commonly consumed than any other beverage worldwide, with the exception of water. Health benefits are well-documented, and there’s no sound reason to avoid drinking coffee, even if you are sensitive to caffeine.
Summary: Decaf coffee offers many of the same positive effects as regular coffee; drinking decaf is an excellent way for people who need to limit caffeine to continue enjoying the flavor and benefits of coffee.