Caffeine is the most commonly used mind-altering drug in the world, and most people use it daily in high enough doses to affect their behavior, according to the Johns Hopkins Medical Center Web site. Researchers there say that 80 percent of the world's population is walking around caffeinated on any given day. They're walking into your store, many looking for a healthier alternative: decaf.
But are they getting a healthier alternative? Or are they ingesting cancer-causing chemicals used to remove the caffeine from the bean? Organically grown coffee is one thing; organically decaffeinated is another. Your customers might think that if it's an organically grown, gourmet decaf coffee, it must be a healthy choice. They need information from you on organic decaffeination methods in order to make an informed decision.
Four primary methods are used to decaffeinate coffee in the United States: with one of two solvents (methylene chloride or ethyl acetate), the supercritical carbon dioxide process, or the Swiss Water Process. The last two are the only methods that can be certified organic under new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules, says Mark Inman, owner and roastmaster of Taylor Maid Farms in Occidental, Calif.
With the Supercritical CO2 method, developed in the 1970s as an alternative to chemical-solvent decaffeination methods, wet green coffee beans are put in a vessel with highly pressurized carbon dioxide. The CO2, being of similar molecular structure as caffeine, draws the caffeine out of the bean in a kind of "swap," Inman says. This process removes 99.9 percent of the caffeine, and creates no toxic residue or waste treatment needs.
Taylor Maid uses this method for 90 percent of its organic decaffeinated coffees. Inman prefers the CO2 method because he believes it leaves intact more of the coffee bean's flavor. It's also easiest on the environment, he says, because it doesn't use as much water as the Swiss Water method.
The Swiss Water method begins by soaking green coffee beans in water to create "flavor-charged water," according to a company flier. The original beans are then thrown away, and the flavor-charged water is run through a carbon filter that traps the caffeine molecules. The decaffeinated water is then run over green coffee beans, naturally removing the caffeine and replacing it with the decaffeinated flavor-charged water. This method removes 97.7 percent of the bean's caffeine. The method was first patented in Switzerland in 1939, but not commercially used until the early 1980s when the world's only Swiss Water decaf plant was built in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Swiss Water's biggest criticism from roasters is that it removes too much of the flavor of the bean, says Michael McLaughlin, roaster and plant manager for Frontier Organic Coffee, now in Urbana, Iowa, but soon to be relocated to Vermont as a recently purchased brand of Green Mountain Coffee. The CO2 method only removes the caffeine, while the Swiss Water method removes caffeine and flavor molecules, then attempts to replace the flavor molecules.
Frontier uses only the CO2 method, McLaughlin says.
Adam Teitelbaum, owner of Adam's Organic Coffees in San Mateo, Calif., uses the Swiss Water method to decaffeinate his coffees. "People say our decaf tastes like regular," he says.
Seattle's Best in Vashon Island, Wash., uses the Swiss Water method to decaffeinate its one organic decaffeinated coffee, Twilight Decaf says Devon Rotter, administrative assistant. She isn't aware of any taste difference between the CO2 and the Swiss Water methods, but says Seattle's Best prefers Swiss Water's nearby plant location in Vancouver. Other Seattle's Best nonorganic decaffeinated coffees are processed with methylene chloride in a plant in Hamburg, Germany.
Methylene chloride is widely used in the United States to decaffeinate coffee. Inman says it's a formaldehyde product that probably burns off before a coffee drinker ingests any of it, but the bottom line, he says, is "Do you want food touching those chemicals?"
In the Food and Drug Administration's Code of Federal Regulations, methylene chloride "may be present ... in coffee as a residue from its use as a solvent in the extraction of caffeine from green coffee beans, at a level not to exceed 10 parts per million."
While many roasters admit that coffee decaffeinated with methylene chloride tastes closer to the original brew than other decafs, the National Cancer Institute reports that because "methylene chloride is strongly suspected to cause cancer in humans, most coffee producers no longer use it." The fact is, however, that a lot of coffee producers do use this method, though they aren't required to tell you that on the label. And the NCI cautions that the real threat from methylene chloride is to people who work with the chemical in plants that use it, rather than to decaf coffee drinkers.
Many nonorganic decaf blends use ethyl acetate as a solvent instead. Some decaffeinated packaging will say the coffee is "naturally decaffeinated" because it used ethyl acetate, which is derived from fruits. "But you still wouldn't want to touch it," Inman says. "It'd burn your hand." Ethyl acetate will often leave a citrus taste in the coffee, he says. Ethyl acetate is FDA approved, according to the Code of Federal Regulations, with no limits.
Roasters hate discussing the flavor of their decaffeinated coffees. Decaffeinated coffee is an "abomination," Teitelbaum says. Inman agrees. "I hate the fact I have to do decaf coffee," he says. And McLaughlin says, "Decaf is no longer really coffee anymore."
But they'll concede that some decaffeinated coffee beans will come closer than others to tasting like regular. Inman says if you're using the Swiss Water process, a blend will taste fuller than a single roast. For any process, the heaviest-bodied coffees, such as those from Indonesia, he says, bring the best decaf results. These coffees start out with more flavor, which means they're left with more flavor once the decaffeination process robs them of some.
McLaughlin says decaffeinating coffee "flattens it, removes its brightness and its higher-end flavors." He also suggests full-body coffees such as the Indonesian beans for the best flavor.
On the other hand, Seattle's Best uses a Guatemalan coffee for its decaf, and Adam's Organic Coffees makes a decaf version of whatever is a popular regular brew. People usually decaf the cheaper beans, Teitelbaum says, because the decaffeination process is expensive, and the coffee maker is already making less money on decaf products.
Retailers and consumers can usually tell how a coffee has been decaffeinated by the label. Most will indicate if Swiss Water or CO2 methods were used because those are organic and offer an additional benefit, Inman and Teitelbaum say. Also, if the label says "Certified Organic" it can only be decaffeinated from one of these two processes. If the label doesn't mention how it's decaffeinated, it probably means it uses either of the chemical solvent methods.
Amy Bernard Satterfield is a journalism instructor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., and is a writing coach and freelance writer.
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