Coffee is a beloved beverage across the world. Over time, its reputation as a delicious and health-boosting drink has gained a worldwide following, with America alone sipping up 400 million cups per day. But, not everyone can handle the caffeine content in a single cup of coffee, which is where the runner-up option, decaf coffee, comes in.
Decaf coffee is a relatively new invention. In the early 1900s, a German merchant by the name of Ludwig Roselius discovered that when soaked in water for a prolonged period of time, coffee beans naturally lose a large amount of their caffeine content.
Since then, decaf coffee has become a favorable option for many people to sip on during the day. Because the caffeine content is virtually nonexistent (but not entirely), decaf coffee is deemed a safe alternative for those with health concerns or who have adverse reactions to caffeine stimulation. But, not all decaf coffee is made the same, and some processes can actually be a danger to human health.
Decaf Coffee: Methods of Extraction
Naturally, coffee beans are caffeinated. Alongside many other plants, coffee beans boast the natural stimulant properties that humans are accustomed to and crave, making them a plant in extremely high demand. In fact, coffee is the second most sought after commodity in the world, following crude oil. Decaf coffee or caffeinated, most of the world's population loves sipping on a fresh cup of joe.
But, not all coffee is created equal. There are over 50 countries in the world that grow the world's coffee supply. Various climates, soil concentrations, and harvesting process all factor into the final brew. And although the flavor is important, the most pressing issue at hand is actually decaf coffee and how it's made.
While soaking beans in water to extract caffeine does make a difference, it isn't the most effective. There's usually a pretty significant amount of caffeine leftover, just less than the original bean. Because of this, everyone from scientists to coffee enthusiasts has worked long and hard to extract the greatest amount of caffeine possible. Sometimes, this means using some extreme and questionable methods.
All decaffeination processes begin with the beans pre-roasted. While in their green state, the beans are the perfect vessel for various treatments, depending on the desired outcome. The most popular practice to create decaf coffee beans is to soak them in boiling water and introduce them to a caffeine-absorbing solvent. This method is called the Solvent Method, and is considered very effective at reducing the caffeine content. The problem, however, is that the solvents used can range from water to some toxic, possibly carcinogenic chemical solvents.
Some methods for decaffeinating coffee are showing to have carcinogenic effects
Another popular method for decaffeinating coffee beans is the Swiss Water Process. This method uses only water to reduce the caffeine from the beans. During the process, a lot of the flavor of the coffee itself can be lost, making the Swiss Water Process a less-popular option. Plus, it only removed about 94-96% of the caffeine, which falls above the FDA's regulation of decaf coffee being 97% caffeine-free and above.
The newest method for creating decaf beans is the CO2 method. Created by scientist Kurt Zosel, this process takes chemicals out of the equation. Instead, the coffee beans are washed with water and introduced to liquid CO2 in an extraction vessel where pressure releases and absorbs the caffeine from the beans.
Clearly, when it comes to decaf coffee, not all brews are the same. When choosing a decaf roast, make sure to look for one that is naturally decaffeinated, without the use of chemicals. The process itself of creating decaffeinated coffee can not only harm human health, but it can also have damaging effects on the environment.
Coffee's Environmental Footprint
Decaf or not, coffee as a whole is an enormous industry. At an estimated $20 billion value, the coffee industry is a major source of income for countries across the world; and it's only estimated to grow from this point onward.
Coffee growing practices have been passed down generations. Originally, the growing and harvesting processes were environmentally-friendly because of less demand and no known fertilization methods. Now, as the demand continues to rise, coffee growing methods are changing. Many farmers are using what is known as the "sun cultivation" technique. This technique involves clearing away areas of forest and foliage cover to ensure that crops receive full sun. By doing so, habitats are being destroyed, and valuable plant life and tree coverage are being cut down and not replaced.
Aside from sun cultivation, excessive fertilizer use and chemical waste are wreaking havoc on the environments of the surrounding areas. Local water sources are being tainted with pesticides and chemical runoff, damaging the wildlife and aquatic plant life alike. Additionally, soil integrity is being compromised from excessive farming practices and the sun cultivation practices. Higher rates of erosion paired with the glaring rays of the sun all day long are damaging the soil quality of the ground amongst the coffee plants and the surrounding areas.
Modern methods of growing coffee plants, such as sun cultivation, are causing environmental damage
So before you indulge in your ritualistic cup of coffee, consider the circumstances it took to get those beans from farm to brew. Many times, mass-produced coffee is the most detrimental to the environment and exploits workers from other countries. Just because it is labeled free trade or organic, it doesn't guarantee that it will align with the requirements that it should. There are certain guidelines in place for a product to be considered fair trade or organic, but the numbers are the bare minimum; make sure to do your research first!
Also, for all of the decaf lovers out there, pay attention to what you're drinking. Avoid any decaf coffee that doesn't clearly explain their processes and the ingredients used. You'll be able to enjoy your cup that much more when you feel confident and reassured in the product. Enjoy!