Is decaf tea bad for you?

decaf tea in teacup

Tea is one of the most popular drinks in the world, particularly black tea. But while many of us enjoy and look forward to a cuppa, we don’t all respond so well to the caffeine which can be overstimulating, affecting nerves, sleep and mood.

With this in mind, many people opt for decaffeinated tea instead. But is it good for you? What are its pros and cons? What decaffeinating methods are used? Is it entirely caffeine free?

We decided to research all these questions and more, and here’s what we found out.

What is decaf tea?

Decaf tea is caffeinated tea that has been processed to remove the caffeine. It’s not the same as naturally caffeine-free teas which tend to be fruit blends or herbal infusions such as peppermint, rooibos, or turmeric tea.

There are different types, and blends of decaf tea, including black tea, chai, Oolong, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, English Breakfast, and green tea and they are all virtually zero in calories. It’s when you add ingredients like milk, sugar and honey that the calories increase.

Is there any caffeine in decaf tea?

It’s important to note that decaffeinated teas aren’t entirely free of caffeine.

According to ‘Which?’, tea makers claim that, by law, decaffeinated tea must contain less than 2.5% of its original caffeine. Apparently, this averages out to around 2mg of caffeine per cup, sometimes more.

However, if you are particularly sensitive to caffeine, you may find that even this is too much as the caffeine mounts up if you are drinking more than one cup a day. So it might be better to stick to herbal or fruit infusions instead.

How is decaf tea made?

Depending on the producer, the tea can be chemically or naturally decaffeinated.

Chemical decaffeination

Chemical decaffeination strips the caffeine using chemical solvents such as methylene chloride (also known as dichloromethane) and ethyl acetate.

Alarmingly, methylene chloride is used as an industrial solvent, paint stripper and thinner.There are two different methods using methylene chloride.

One is the direct method where the tea leaves are soaked in the solvent, which binds to the caffeine molecules.

The other is the indirect method, where the leaves are soaked in water to remove the caffeine, then the methylene chloride is added to the water to decaffeinate it. The water is then returned to the tea leaves for reabsorption of flavours and oils.

Either way, once the methylene chloride is removed, there is still some chemical residue left behind, although it falls within supposedly safe limits. This method is said to be the best at retaining the flavour of the original tea, but many believe it to be harmful to our health.

Ethyl acetate uses the same method as methylene chloride and is seen as a safer non-organic method of decaffeination.

A popular chemical used in a multitude of industrial and household products, including nail polish remover, cigarettes, glue and paint, ethyl acetate2 is often referred to as a ‘natural decaffeination’ solvent as it is naturally found in tea. According to Premium Teas, it’s hard to remove ethyl acetate after the decaffeinating process, which can leave it with a chemical taste.

Non-chemical decaffeination

Safer forms of decaffeination, use carbon dioxide (CO2), or water processing. This is also known as ‘natural decaffeination’.

CO2 decaffeination is more widely used by organic tea brands and is approved by the Soil Association. It is seen as entirely safe and doesn’t leave any unpleasant chemical residues. It’s better for the environment and also manages to retain the flavour of the tea, though not all of it, while preserving some of the health benefits.

Unlike other methods, CO2 extraction doesn’t soak the tea in a solvent or water; it places them under pressure and moistens them. Heated, pressurised CO2 passes through the leaves attracting the caffeine molecules, leaving the tea intact, which helps to retain the flavour.

Water processing, also known as the ‘Swiss Water Method’ is less widely used and more popular for coffee than for tea. The caffeine is removed from the tea by soaking it in hot water, then the liquid is passed through a carbon filter for caffeine removal, before being reunited with the tea for reabsorption. This is referred to as the watering down method, and apparently, it does water down the flavour.

Decaf tea vs regular tea: What are the differences?

Caffeine content

Decaf tea contains less caffeine than regular tea, although it does still have roughly 2mg of caffeine per cup, sometimes more.

What’s the caffeine content in each type?

It’s hard to find a definitive answer for this, and it appears to vary between brands. On average, decaffeinated black tea can contain anything from 2mg to 6mg of caffeine and decaf green tea is around 2mg to 4mg.3 This is still considerably less than a standard cup of PG Tips, for example, which contains 50mg of caffeine per 200ml cup. Interestingly, a cup of PG Tips decaf black tea contains only 1mg caffeine per cup4, although we are not sure of their decaffeination method.

Does decaf tea contain fewer antioxidants?

As far as green tea is concerned, decaffeination does strip it of many of its nutrients. Researchers found that flavonols (plant polyphenol antioxidants) in decaffeinated green teas are considerably less than in the regular versions, measuring only 4.6 to 39.0 mg/g compared to 21.2 to 103.2 mg/g.

Of course, the researcher’s didn’t state whether a non-chemical decaffeination method was used for these teas, which would retain more nutrients – although not all of them, and it’s difficult to say how many.

It’s commonly believed that the decaffeination process strips black tea of its beneficial nutrients too, though less so using the CO2 method. In some animal studies, decaffeinated black tea has been less effective at reducing cancer development than standard black tea.5

Is decaf tea healthier than regular tea?

If you cannot tolerate caffeine, then decaf is a better option. A significant factor to consider is whether chemical stripping methods have been used, in which case, you will be ingesting chemical residues, and the tea will have lost most of its beneficial minerals and polyphenols.

If you drink organic decaf tea, which has been produced using natural decaffeination methods, then it will be much better for you.

However, one thing to note is that decaf tea contains fewer catechins (antioxidants) that could benefit your health and for that reason, it’s not really healthier than regular tea.

If you really need to drink decaf tea, why not switch to organic herbal teas with their many health benefits instead? Teas such as olive leaf and rooibos have plenty of antioxidants but no caffeine.

Does decaf tea taste as good as regular tea?

This mainly comes down to personal preference, though the general message seems to be that certain brands of both decaffeinated black and green tea taste better than others. Some people reported ‘chemical’ taste in certain decaf teas which is probably to do with a decaffeination method used. A certain amount of trial and error could be involved in finding one you enjoy.

Does decaf tea have any benefits?

Both green and black tea have a multitude of health benefits. Black tea is associated with improved heart, bone and gut health. It may also aid blood sugar balance and may help to prevent cancer.

Green tea helps to boost immunity, improve brain function, aid cardiovascular health, and it may also reduce the risk of diabetes and protect against some type of cancers.

If you drink organic decaffeinated teas which have used the CO2 method of decaffeination, they do retain more nutrients and antioxidants, so you may still reap some of the health benefits. However, it’s still better to drink standard teas if you want to benefit from all the positive health effects tea drinking brings.

Does decaf tea have any side effects?

Decaf tea still retains some caffeine so if you are extremely sensitive, it’s possible that you may experience some of the side effects associated with caffeinated black and green tea. These include anxiety, insomnia, headaches, jitters, increased heart rate and blood pressure, heartburn, digestive issues, and diarrhoea.

Although there may be less, decaffeinated black and green tea also still contain tannins. Moderate consumption shouldn’t be a problem, but excessive intake can lead to stomach upset, nausea and vomiting.

Interestingly, according to the Linus Pauling Institute, analysis of a study spanning 11 years involving 263,923 people, found that the consumption of decaffeinated tea may increase the risk of depression.

Is it safe to drink decaf tea while pregnant?

You need to limit your caffeine intake if you’re pregnant as it can cause low birth weight, and potentially increase any future health problems for your child. It can also possibly lead to miscarriage.

The NHS recommends a maximum of 200mg caffeine a day (equivalent to two mugs of instant coffee), but some research has found that even smaller amounts of 50 to 149mg caffeine per day may cause lower birth weight.

Current medical opinion is that decaffeinated tea or coffee is safe to drink from early pregnancy onwards, and it is recommended to consume it as an alternative to regular tea or coffee. We would also suggest drinking organic decaf tea to avoid the chemicals and benefit from the (at least partially retained) health benefits.

Green tea is also allowed during pregnancy, and the same caffeine rules apply.

Is decaf tea safe while breastfeeding?

While you’re breastfeeding, the same advice applies regarding caffeine consumption and drinking decaffeinated alternatives. This is because the caffeine passes through breast milk and can make your baby feel restless.

Conclusion – Is decaf tea bad for you?

On balance, although any chemicals used to strip caffeine from tea are within approved safe limits, it might be an idea to stick to organic decaf teas that have used natural, toxin-free methods. This also retains more of the health benefits associated with drinking green and black tea.

Some caffeine still remains in the tea, which is on average 2mg a cup, though this can reach up to 6mg for black tea and 4mg for green tea. If you are drinking decaf tea because you are negatively affected by caffeine, particularly if you are especially sensitive to it, just remember that although it is significantly lower than caffeinated tea, if you’re drinking several cups a day, you’re overall caffeine intake will increase.

If you are avoiding caffeine because you are worried it is bad for you, perhaps consider drinking good quality caffeinated versions, but limit your intake to one or two cups a day, consuming herbal or fruit teas the rest of the time. This way, you’ll get the full range of health benefits black and green tea can offer.

Aside from any concerns over chemical extraction, we couldn’t find any research suggesting that decaf tea is bad for you, though there is a possible association between drinking decaffeinated tea and an increased risk of depression.

It is safe to drink tea if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, though exceeding 200mg caffeine per day while pregnant can affect birth weight and increase the risk of miscarriage. It can also make your baby restless if you are breastfeeding.

Related contentThe best decaf teas found throughout the world

References:
1. https://www.chemicalsafetyfacts.org/methylene-chloride/
2. https://www.msdsonline.com/2015/04/10/ethyl-acetate-a-sweet-smelling-safety-hazard/
3. https://www.caffeineinformer.com/caffeine-content/decaffeinated-tea
4. https://www.caffeineinformer.com/caffeine-content/pg-tips-tea
5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3220617/
https://www.premiumteas.ca/blog/how-is-tea-decaffeinated/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4198801/
https://www.amazing-green-tea.com/decaffeinated-green-tea.html
https://www.clipper-teas.com/tea-talk/decaffeination-the-organic-way
https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/food-beverages/tea
https://www.reference.com/food/side-effects-decaffeinated-tea-f33bbbb3a2c9b546
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/10644587_Catechin_Content_of_18_Teas_and_a_Green_Tea_Extract_Supplement_Correlates_With_the_Antioxidant_Capacity
https://conversation.which.co.uk/food-drink/national-tea-day-decaff-tea/