A cup of decaf tea seems like the obvious solution for tea lovers looking to cut back on their caffeine consumption. But is the decaffeination process doing more harm to your body than the caffeine would?
We’ve already discussed the benefits and side effects of caffeine, concluding that it’s generally safe and even beneficial, but can cause problems with excessive use, but what is the process for removing this caffeine from tea?
How is Caffeine Removed from Tea?
There are a few ways to remove caffeine from tea, each with varying degrees of effectiveness, safety, and cost. One of these methods uses a dangerous solvent, which is then washed away, and it is this method that you’ve probably heard about on ominous documentaries and in attention-grabbing newspaper articles.
We’re not big fans of the whole decaffeinating process. We think there are better, naturally caffeine-free options that are probably a lot healthier, including Rooibos instead of black tea and roasted dandelion root instead of coffee. And that’s only if you want something that tastes very similar, because if you’re happy to broaden your horizons then there is a world of herbal teas out there for you.
However, we’re equally less appreciative of all this scaremongering. The truth is, there are many more methods of decaffeinating tea than the ones you have been warned about and some of these are considerably healthier.
Potentially Dangerous Decaffeinating Method: Methylene Chloride
This is a way of decaffeinating tea that deserves all of the scaremongering it gets. Methylene chloride can occur naturally in marine algae, but most of the methylene chloride that exists in the environment is the result of industrial emissions, and the chemical used to decaffeinate tea is created by forcing reactions between methane and chlorine gas at high temperatures.
It is used as a paint stripper and is considered to have a low toxicity, but it’s highly volatile, can cause death when inhaled in large amounts, and has also been studied as a potential carcinogen.
On the plus side, there is probably very little of this solvent left in your decaf tea leaves after they have been processed with methylene chloride.
Worrying Decaffeinating Method: Ethyl Acetate
This method is actually described as “naturally decaffeinated” because ethyl acetate is a naturally occurring organic compound.
It can be found in fruit and wine in small amounts, but it is also found in paint and nail polish remover and is officially characterised as a solvent. It is said to leave a “chemical” aftertaste in the tea (no surprise there) and it also strips away a lot of the antioxidants. According to one source, it may remove as much as 80% of them!
Safe Decaffeinating Method: Carbon Dioxide
The public is drinking more decaf tea and coffee than ever, and this has led to a shift from solvents to safer and more palatable methods. This includes the use of carbon dioxide during a process that is thought to be safe, effective, and leaves much of the flavour and health benefits of the tea.
It is a more expensive method, but it’s probably the best one available and involves adding the tea leaves and carbon dioxide to a highly pressured chamber, at which point the carbon dioxide begins to bind to caffeine molecules, drawing them out of the leaves.
As a drinker of decaf tea, the onus is on you to vote with your wallet. If the people who make your decaf tea are using one of the questionable methods mentioned above and you’re not happy with it, then let your displeasure be known and use another provider until they change their ways.
It doesn’t matter how many people insist these methods are safe; the customer needs to be confident that what they are drinking is 100% safe and healthy throughout every step of the process, and with the aforementioned solvent methods, that just isn’t the case.
Can You Decaffeinate Tea at Home?
Guides on the internet claim you can naturally decaf your tea simply by adding boiling water, leaving it for 30 seconds, and then emptying it before brewing normally. It is said that the caffeine steeps before the flavour does, but while this is interesting in theory, it doesn’t work in practice.
Research suggests that this method will cause a reduction of no more than 10% caffeine, so it simply isn’t worth it.
The truth is, unless you have a laboratory in your living room, you can’t effectively decaffeinate tea at home.
Is Decaf Tea Bad For You?
If the caffeine is removed safely then it should be good for you. Tea is loaded with antioxidants, after all, and has been linked with a host of health benefits.
It has been argued that decaf tea is better for you than “normal” tea, but we wouldn’t go as far as to say this. Caffeine is perfectly fine for most of the population when not consumed to excess.
If you are sensitive to this stimulant or experience allergic reactions, however, then it’s certainly better for you.
Naturally Decaffeinated Tea
If you want naturally caffeine free tea then honeybush and rooibos are as close as you’re going to get.
We have consumed black tea all of our lives and we personally love these two teas, especially when mixed with each other (the honeybush adds a delicate sweetness). To us, they taste like a sweeter, milder black tea, more like a Darjeeling than an English Breakfast, and they go great with a dollop of honey. But the opinion of black tea drinkers seems to be divided, with some saying they love the taste of rooibos and others comparing it to wet earth.
It’s just one of those things, but if you love black tea and are looking for a naturally free, healthy alternative, try it for yourself. We don’t sell any red tea here on Shelgo Tea (yet!), so we can’t recommend any of our own products, but we do recommend that you look for a loose leaf tea and invest in a honeybush/rooibos mixture.
Drink it like you drink black tea (with milk and sugar/honey, if you take them) and be sure to let us know what you think! We’re really interested in seeing just how many black tea drinkers love it and how many hate it.
Decaf Green Tea
The process of creating decaf green tea is the same as black tea. Green tea is naturally lower in caffeine, but if you are sensitive to this stimulant then a strong cup of green tea may still be enough to cause side effects.
It’s a little harder to find decaf green tea, but at the same time there are many more naturally caffeine-free alternatives that have a similar—or better—taste. One of our personal favourites, as always, is sideritis (buy here), which is just as mild and fragrant but packs more floral layers where green tea tends to leave only bitterness.
How Much Caffeine is in Decaf Tea?
Contrary to what you might think, decaf tea is not 100% caffeine free. It depends on the method used, but typically there is only a negligible amount.