How Much Caffeine Is in Decaf Coffee?

We all know and love caffeine, the brain juice that helps us wake up in the morning and stay awake through boring meetings. It takes us through red-eye flights, all-nighters, TV show binges, and newborn babies' first months. But what if you've had too much and now have to stay away from caffeine for a while? If you've found yourself switching to decaf for whatever reason, you must be a bit curious about what makes it free of caffeine without losing much taste.

Today I'll answer your most pressing questions, like

Is there caffeine in decaf coffee?

Which brands have the most caffeine in their decaf?

Can decaf coffee be both safe and delicious?

Who can benefit from switching to decaf?

The answers might not be as straightforward as you think, so bear with me till the end.

Can decaf coffee be both safe and delicious

What Is Decaf Coffee?

Decaf isn't no-caf. 

And half-caf is nothing but a smart advertising trick that's in no way better than regular or decaf coffee.

So if you were wondering, "Does decaf coffee have caffeine?" the short answer is yes. The long answer gets a bit more complicated and interesting.

Yes, there is caffeine in your decaf cuppa, and any coffee brand claiming there's zero caffeine in their products is either lying or selling you something that's definitely not coffee. Caffeine is a chemical compound present in many plant-based products, including coffee beans and tea leaves. Despite its lifestyle and health benefits, some have been trying to produce caffeine-free coffee for over a century. In fact, the first decaffeination process was developed in 1905.

The trouble is, the only way to extract caffeine from the beans is via diffusion or osmosis. If you've forgotten your high school science, these terms roughly translate to redistribution of a specific component throughout the volume with enough time. Sometimes, increasing temperature or pressure helps speed things up. 

The first attempts at creating decaf required benzene, that's now known as a carcinogen. Caffeine left the beans and was dissolved in benzene that left the horrible tasting beans few could stomach. Even after a hundred years, we haven't come up with anything better than soaking the green coffee beans in a solvent and waiting for the caffeine to dissolve. However, the chemicals used are much safer. The cheapest brands use methylene chloride or ethyl acetate (both relatively safe, especially in minuscule amounts left in the beans after the decaffeination process). Others rely on water or carbon dioxide to get rid of caffeine. The latter is the safest method, health-wise, but it's also the most expensive and less widespread.

Decaffeination Removes Some Caffeine, Not All

Why can't we have coffee free of all caffeine if the process is so simple? Physics is at fault here. You see, the more caffeine is in the beans, the faster it's dissolved. However, when there's nearly no caffeine left, the process slows down to a crawl until it almost stops. As the difference in caffeine concentration in the bean and the solvent lowers, the extraction process becomes unsustainable. We could get the caffeine content to negligible numbers with enough time and resources, but it would never reach zero.

How much caffeine in decaf coffee is left? That depends on many factors, like bean origin and type, decaffeination process and solvent, as well as national regulations. For instance, coffee can be classified as decaf in the US if it has no more than 3 percent of the initial caffeine content. In the EU, regulations are a lot stricter, and only 0.1% of caffeine in decaf coffee is considered appropriate.

In layman's terms, you need to drink about 30 cups of decaf in the US to get the same amount you'd get in a single serving of regular blend. In the EU, you'd have to chug around a thousand decafs to get the standard dose. For more details on specific brands and drinks, check out the next couple of sections.

Decaffeination Removes Some Caffeine, Not All

Some Decaf Blends Have More Caffeine Than Others

If you paid attention to my explanation, you might have noticed that American authorities do not set the maximum limit on the amount of caffeine contained in decaf beans. Instead, they regulate the relative amount (under 3 percent) compared to the initial concentration. This opens a can of worms when it comes to hard numbers. When you have to account for the caffeine content of regular beans, it becomes obvious that not all decafs are equal. 

The amount of caffeine in decaf coffee depends on:

  1. Type of bean. Most single-origin beans are harvested from Arabica trees. They produce a more nuanced and delicate flavor with lower caffeine content. However, they are more finicky when it comes to growing conditions and resilience. Robusta trees are much easier to grow, making the beans cheaper. However, their flavor is considered too overwhelming by java gourmets, and the caffeine content is much higher. Robusta and Arabica blends are popular among those who need an extra energy boost and make brands like Death Wish Coffee stand out. If you're after the least amount of caffeine, steer clear of Robusta in blends, as the decaf version will have more of a punch than that of Arabica.
  2. Origin of the beans. If you go with decaf Arabica, in most cases, the amount of caffeine will be under 16 mg per cup. However, some varieties grown in specific locations may be more punchy than others. For instance, Columbian coffee is considered to be quite strong, and its decaf version may be too stimulating for you, unlike Kona coffee or Ethiopian Yirgacheffe.
  3. Brewing method. As we've already established, the longer the extraction lasts, the more caffeine is drawn from the beans, and it’s true for the brewing process as well. While espresso seems like the strongest option you can get from a local coffee shop, cold brew usually has higher caffeine content. So if you want to minimize caffeine consumption, opt for fast brewing methods, using an espresso machine or capsule coffee maker.
  4. Decaffeination method. We've already mentioned three common processes that reduce caffeine content, but they aren't equally effective. CO2 extraction is considered the best, but it's too expensive for mass-market products. The use of chemical solvents is the least effective, yet it's also the cheapest. Swiss water process is gaining popularity thanks to its relative simplicity, the lack of harmful chemicals, and efficient caffeine content reduction. I'll talk more about this ingenious method in the next section.

I'm sorry to say if you want to get rid of caffeine altogether, you must forget about tea and coffee, as well as energy drinks and sodas. You'll have to switch to herbal teas, juices, or smoothies, but remember that some fruits and berries come with inherent stimulant chemicals that put caffeine to shame.

Some Decaf Blends Have More Caffeine Than Others

Why Look for Swiss Water Processed Beans?

As we've already established, the Swiss water process is the most common nowadays, and there are plenty of reasons for that. For one, unlike the chemical solvent-based approach, this method does not require any potentially dangerous compounds. Only water and charcoal filters are used to extract caffeine.

First, a batch of green beans is soaked in water to extract all compounds that make them taste so good, including caffeine. The latter is then drawn out by the charcoal filter so that only the green coffee extract remains, choke-full of aroma and flavor. The original coffee batch is discarded, and the extract is used dozens of times to decaffeinate the beans.

As the green coffee extract has the same chemical profile as the beans, aside from caffeine, it's the only compound that gets drawn out. The others remain inside the beans, preserving their flavor palette. The extract flows through the beans and filters for a few hours until caffeine content is under 1% of the original amount. All it takes to get the beans ready for shipping or roasting is drying them out to the initial moisture level. After that, the naturally decaffeinated coffee brands can work their roasting magic, and you get to enjoy a safe and delicious cuppa, almost 100% free of caffeine.

Is the Swiss water process the ultimate answer to our decaf struggles? Unfortunately, it isn't. For one, it's more expensive than a solvent-based process, as it produces no usable byproducts. The caffeine caught by the charcoal filters is discarded rather than being sold for further use. Another unfortunate side effect of using green coffee extract is its contact with different batches of coffee. The flavor and aroma of your favorite single-origin bean will be diluted, not as pronounced, because oils and other compounds from a variety of beans get introduced throughout the soaking process. Even if this type of decaf tastes better than the one using chemical solvents, it's still slightly different from the original taste of the bean. For now, the Swiss water process is the top choice when it comes to decaf, though carbon dioxide may take over when producers manage to lower the processing coast. 

So how do you find this particular type of decaf? Some brands have a bright blue logo on the bags proclaiming their use of the Swiss water processed beans, but others don't. In this case, look for USDA Organic certification, as it can only be awarded to decaf beans that haven't come into contact with chemical solvents.

Caffeine in Average Decaf Coffee

If I decided to research all coffee growers, roasters, and sellers, it would take me a couple of months to collect and order decaf coffee caffeine content by brand. I gave up on this idea pretty quickly. Instead, I decided to focus on the most popular coffee shops and cafes you're likely to frequent.

If you're curious how much caffeine in Starbucks decaf remains present, the answer is 20 to 30 mg per cup (10 to 24 fl oz). While relatively small, these numbers are higher than those of McDonald's (8 to 18 mg per cup) and Dunkin Donuts (7 to 15 mg). The latter is your best bet if you’re highly sensitive to caffeine.

If you were wondering about caffeine in McDonalds iced coffee, a medium-sized drink (16 fl oz) holds 133 mg of caffeine, while a large serving (22 fl oz) has 200 mg, and an extra-large one (32 fl oz) includes 320 mg. It is by no means a decaf option, and it’s nearly identical to Venti Starbucks Iced Coffee (24 fl oz) that boasts 235 mg of caffeine. For a less caffeinated drink, check out Dunkin Donuts. Their relatively tame large drink holds just above 90 mg of caffeine.

If you're going for whole bean or pre-ground decaf coffee, you can expect anywhere from 7 to 17 mg of caffeine per cuppa. The exact concentration will depend on the bean-to-water ratio and your favorite brewing method. For the most desperate times, I should also mention that instant coffee holds 3 to 8 mg of caffeine per serving. Still, if you're ready to settle for an instant option, I don't know why you don't give up coffee altogether.

Most coffee brands offer their best-sellers in regular and decaf forms to appease every coffee drinker out there. However, some companies are firmly on the anti-decaf team. Death Wish Coffee, Black Label, and Very Strong Coffee are among them, which isn't that surprising considering their brands are built on selling the strongest coffee in the world. Luckily, caffeine purists are a minority among manufacturers, and you can have an impressive selection of decaf beans, both single-origin and blends, as well as Nespresso pods and K-cups. 

Peet's Decaf Espresso is among my personal favorites with its dark roast and impressive palette and merely 10 mg of caffeine per serving (1.5 fl oz). Not bad for a delicious espresso, right?

Who Should Drink Decaf Coffee?

If you've gotten this far, you must be firmly set on trading your regular cup of joe for decaf. It's no wonder, as caffeine comes with its fair share of side effects. While most healthcare authorities agree that 400 mg of the stuff is perfectly safe for healthy adults, regular overdosing comes with a steep price. Insomnia, jitters, irritability, tremors–these are a few of my personal favorites from the top of the list. If you suffer any of these issues, cutting back on caffeine is a good idea. 

You should also heed your doctor's concerns if they worry about your heart or arteries. While there's some proof caffeine is good for your cardiovascular system, high blood pressure can get even higher if you chug more than one or two cups of coffee per day. Psychological issues may also get exacerbated by regular caffeine consumption, so even a therapist may urge you against a daily morning pick-me-up.

Women looking to get pregnant, expecting mothers, and those who breastfeed may still consume caffeine safely with a daily dose under 200 mg, though most doctors will advise against regular coffee. The same is true for kids and teenagers. While coffee won't stunt their growth, its stimulating effects might harm growing bodies and developing minds.

Finally, there's an unfortunate group with heightened caffeine sensitivity who can't handle even the smallest concentration in decaf drinks. If you get migraines or feel queasy or jittery after a cup of decaf, you might be among the unlucky percentage. Low (or high) caffeine tolerance is also a thing, as much as alcohol tolerance is. Meaning, the more coffee you drink, the less effective caffeine becomes, making you up the dosage. It's a vicious cycle that brings us back to the topic of caffeine's side effects.

Curiously, decaf consumption numbers are somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, the average decaf consumption per capita in the US has decreased from 0.4 cups per day in 2011 to 0.23 cups in 2020. On the other hand, millennials are driving decaf sales in the EU, North America, Japan, and South Korea. In these countries, the decaf coffee market growth exceeded that of regular beans in 2018, and the trend is likely to continue as more young people turn to a healthy lifestyle. So we might see more people switching (at least partially) to decaf in the near future, and it will inevitably drive decaf research and manufacturing advances.

Now that you know how much caffeine in decaf to expect, commercials won't fool you with promises of caffeine-free coffee. However, decaf is still a much safer option for most caffeine-sensitive people. You should definitely give it a try if you fall under any of the categories listed in this section.

Who Should Drink Decaf Coffee?

The Bottom Line on Caffeine in Decaf

I know you must be reeling from the info dump I've shared. I hope you now have a better understanding of what decaf is, how it's created, and what you can expect from a cuppa. Finally, let me give a definitive answer to the only question you care about.

How much caffeine is in a cup of decaf coffee? An average cuppa will hold anywhere from 3 to 16 mg of caffeine compared to 100 to 200 mg of regular beans. Ultimately, these numbers mean nothing unless you give decaf a try and monitor your body's reaction closely. That's the only reliable way to find out if it's safe for you or not.

I know you must be reeling from the info dump I've shared. I hope you now have a better understanding of what decaf is, how it's created, and what you can expect from a cuppa. Finally, let me give a definitive answer to the only question you care about.

How much caffeine is in a cup of decaf coffee? An average cuppa will hold anywhere from 3 to 16 mg of caffeine compared to 100 to 200 mg of regular beans. Ultimately, these numbers mean nothing unless you give decaf a try and monitor your body's reaction closely. That's the only reliable way to find out if it's safe for you or not.

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Renat Mamatazin

Renat Mamatkazin


Founder and owner of Lion Coffee and 3ChampsRoastery, 1st place winner of Ukrainian Barista Championship 2017. Interested in travelling, football and Formula-1 (besides coffee, of course).

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