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Paging Rosie: Decaf During Pregnancy

So when I’m not pregnant I do like to indulge in coffee, especially a fun latte or cappuccino! I go cold turkey when I get pregnant but I have to admit while I find cutting caffeine out only a little tricky at first it is more the ritual of going to the coffee place and ordering something exciting mid-afternoon, perhaps with something tasty on the side, that I miss. This is why I started considering a decaf latte here and there to have the indulgence without the guilt of the caffeine. What I found though was quiet alarming some decaffeinated coffee has not been decaffeinated in a safe way. Let me summarize what I’ve discovered so that if you do choose to indulge you can find out what is safe and what is not.

In order for coffee to qualify as decaffeinated, it must have at least 97 percent of its caffeine removed. A few different techniques are available to do this, some are safe and some are not. Knowing which method your favorite coffee house uses is imperative.

Coffee beans are decaffeinated by softening the beans with water and using a substance to extract the caffeine. Water alone cannot be used because it strips away too much of the flavor. Substances used to remove the caffeine may directly or indirectly come in contact with the beans, and so the processes are referred to as direct or indirect decaffeination.

In “Indirect decaffeination”, green (unroasted) coffee beans are soaked in water to soften them and extract the caffeine. Then the water containing the caffeine is treated with a solvent. This is then heated to extract the caffeine from the solvent, and then the water (with essential coffee bean oils and other flavors) is returned to the beans. The flavors in the water are reabsorbed by the beans. This process repeats several times until the beans contain the rich coffee flavors and essential oils without the caffeine at which point they are dried and roasted. This process is called “indirect decaffeination” because the beans never touch the solvent themselves.

The most widely used solvent today is ethyl acetate, a substance found in many fruits. When your coffee label states that the beans are “naturally decaffeinated,” it is referring to this process, specifically using ethyl acetate. Although it doesn’t sound like a natural process, it can be labeled as such because the solvent occurs in nature. Other solvents have been used, some of which have been shown to be harmful. One, methylene chloride, has been alleged to cause cancer in humans and therefore is not often used. Back in the 1970s, another solvent, trichloroethylene, was found to be carcinogenic and is no longer used.

Another indirect method soaks the green coffee beans in water to soften them and remove the caffeine, and then runs the liquid through activated charcoal or carbon filters to decaffeinate it. Then the flavor containing fluid is returned to the beans to be dried and roasted. This charcoal or carbon process is often called “Swiss water process“.

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A direct decaffeination process involves the use of carbon dioxide as a solvent. The coffee beans are soaked in compressed CO2, which removes 97 percent of the caffeine. The solvent containing the extracted caffeine evaporates when the beans return to room temperature.

Concern over the safety of decaffeinated coffee stems from solvents used in the processes, particularly in the past. If your coffee is labeled naturally decaffeinated or Swiss water processed, you can be assured that no harmful chemicals are used. If your coffee is labeled differently or your favorite barista has no idea what you are talking about, it’s best to skip the afternoon break and just go with a muffin!

I am now the crazy lady that runs around town quizzing every barista I can get my hands on “Is your decaffeinated coffee Swiss water processed or naturally decaffeinated? What? You don’t know, well young man it’s about time I educate you on why this is important for one to know”.

I think it drives my husband bonkers but I can feel safe and secure indulging in a nice warm brew knowing that my baby is completely safe from harm….and that my lovelies is worth some bonkers!

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One Response

  1. Rosie, thank you for bringing up the issue of caffeine vs. decaf (I also do not drink any caffeine when pregnant), however, I feel that there may be a misconception here about the methylene chloride used for some decaffeinated coffees. After doing a little research, I found some interesting posts. The University of California, Berkely posted the following in its Wellness Letter issue from May 2004, “Over the years there have been worries about decaf processed with methylene chloride because studies had found that this chemical caused cancer when inhaled by lab animals (which is why it was banned in hair sprays). But there was no carcinogenic effect when the animals drank the chemical. In any case, the residue in decaf is virtually nil, and there’s no evidence of any danger for humans drinking decaf. The FDA has approved the compound for use in decaffeination.”
    Please also see this posting from Sweet Maria’s website.
    • Methylene Chloride is allowed by the USDA in amounts of 10 PPM (Parts Per Million). The European Union, under whose guidlines the German decafs are performed allows 3 PPM. The coffee tests at LESS THAN 1 PPM …every time.
    • The Methylene Chloride is never absorbed by the bean really. It is a solvent and therfore does not bond with the coffee.
    • Methylene Chloride is highly volatile and completely dissapates at 170 degrees. Coffee is roasted for 15 minutes at 500 degrees and brewed at 200 degrees.
    • Methylene Chloride warnings concern situations and industries where people use the chemical directly, with over 25 PPM direct contact. Yes, it is nasty stuff.
    • I had believed Methylene Chloride use may contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. It appears to not be true, according to the World Health Organization that states that MC has no environmental impact, outside the chance of a chemical spill. But household bleach would have an impact in a spill too.
    It looks like there may be differing viewpoints on the use of methlyene chloride in the decaffeination process, but like anything we ingest or use topically, we have to make an informed decision based upon the research that is currently out there. Currently the research is showing that decaffeinated coffee (decaffeinated through the use of methylene chloride) is safe. Thank you, as always, for bringing these topics to our attention!

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