The U.S. Has Long Debated Banning Decaf Coffee. The Fight Has Reached a Critical Moment

  • Coffee has many health benefits. That doesn't mean it's immune from regulatory scrutiny, though. Currently, decaf coffee is under the spotlight.

  • Regulators are concerned about the presence of methylene chloride, a solvent used in the process of removing caffeine, in decaf coffee.

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Coffee is one of the most popular drinks worldwide. It’s often associated with breakfast because of its caffeine content, which can give us an energy boost in the morning. However, it’s really a drink that can be enjoyed at any time and in many different ways. Coffee even has a social aspect, with people often meeting up for a cup. While it seems like more benefits of drinking coffee are discovered every few years, the drink has also been surrounded by controversy for years.

Interestingly, this controversy hasn’t been related to caffeine, but rather the lack of it. Regulators are so concerned that some believe decaf coffee could be at risk of disappearing in the U.S.

The history of decaf. The history of decaffeinated coffee is quite interesting. Back in 1820, German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge discovered a process to extract caffeine from coffee. However, it wasn’t until 1903 that German merchant Ludwig Roselius stumbled upon a unique method for decaffeinating coffee. A shipment of beans he had received was accidentally soaked in seawater. Instead of discarding them, he dried and roasted them before selling them. Unfortunately, customers soon began complaining that the coffee wasn’t working for them and they couldn’t stay awake. Roselius determined that it didn’t have the so-called “caffeine effect,” which some scientists today believe is really a placebo effect.

Currently, there are three known methods for decaffeinating coffee beans. The first method involves the use of special chemicals, such as ethyl acetate or methylene chloride, to separate the caffeine from the beans.

The second method is a water-based method, similar to what happened with the Roselius shipment. With this process, the beans are soaked in hot water to remove their caffeine. The water is then filtered to eliminate the caffeine, and the beans are soaked again in the same liquid to regain some of the properties lost in the initial process. However, this process is not entirely effective and can be expensive.

The third method, which is used in high-end coffees, utilizes a physical process that involves combining the pressure of 275 atmospheres with a CO2-rich environment to dissolve the caffeine in the coffee. This process is more expensive compared to the other two methods.

Can I have a decaf with cancer, please? The solvent-based process is the most common method used in commercial coffees to remove caffeine. In the past, Roselius himself experimented with using benzene as a solvent. For 13 hours, he bathed the beans in a mixture of seawater and a benzene solution. However, we now know that benzene is a carcinogenic substance. As such, this method is no longer used.

In fact, there’s currently a heated debate surrounding decaf coffee due to concerns that it may be carcinogenic. Some are calling for it to be banned in the U.S. because of the possible link between the methylene chloride used in the decaffeination process and cancer.

When health comes into play. Around 26 million Americans drink coffee at least once a day. Many of these cups of coffee are made using the chemical process of decaffeination with methylene chloride. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a division of the Department of Labor, this is where the problem lies.

“Methylene chloride is used in various industrial processes, in many different industries including paint stripping, pharmaceutical manufacturing, paint remover manufacturing, and metal cleaning and degreasing,” OSHA states on its website, adding that it “considers methylene chloride to be a potential occupational carcinogen.”

Several banning attempts. This isn't the first time methylene chloride has been in the eye of the storm. Back in 1987, a group tried to sue the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, to ban the use of methylene chloride in the food industry. However, a judge ruled that the legality of the product was still under consideration by the FDA, so the lawsuit was dismissed. Despite this, there have been other attempts to sue companies for using methylene chloride in recent years.

Earlier this year, the FDA filed a petition requesting the removal of several potentially harmful substances from food and beverages. The list includes benzene, trichloroethylene, ethylene dichloride, and methylene chloride.

Not all decaf blends use methylene chloride. Obviously, the American decaffeinated coffee industry could be affected if the new proposal is approved and the methylene chloride dilutions exceed the new regulation standards. This doesn’t mean decaf coffee could disappear, given that there are other methods for decaffeination that don't involve this solvent. However, these decaffeination mehtods are typically more expensive, which could potentially lead to an increase in the price of decaf coffee.

Interestingly, the Clean Label Project has already conducted studies to determine if commercial decaffeinated coffees contain traces of methylene chloride. They found traces of the solvent in coffee brands including Amazon Fresh, Bustelo, Gevalia Kaffe, Great Value, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Kirkland Signature, Kroger, Maxwell House, and Seattle’s Best.

On the other hand, no traces of methylene chloride were found in decaffeinated coffee from brands like Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, Folgers, Caribou Coffee, ILLY, Allegro Coffee, Archer Farms, Community Coffee, Dazbog Coffee, Kicking Horse Coffee, NESCAFÉ, The Organic Coffee Co., or Tim Hortons.

In the case of Peet’s Coffee, traces of methylene chloride were found in their Decaffeinated House Blend, but not in their Decaffeinated Major Dickason’s Blend.

Image | Natham Dumlao via Unsplash

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