Is Decaf Coffee Safe to Drink?

Is Decaf Coffee Safe to Drink?

With its minimal caffeine content, decaf coffee is often touted as a better-for-you alternative to traditional coffee. But in recent months, concerns have cropped up over a chemical used to make decaf coffee that some say is dangerous.

The conversation over the potential health risks of decaf coffee began back in December 2023, when a number of health advocacy groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the use of a chemical called methylene chloride. It is frequently used in the production of decaffeinated coffee.

Their petition states that methylene chloride—in addition to three other substances—has been shown to cause cancer in humans and animals and is, therefore, unsafe to include in the food supply. Currently, the FDA permits concentrations of methylene chloride below 10 parts per million (ppm) in decaffeinated beans—but is considering the group’s petition to prohibit the use of this additive entirely.

Further, in April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned most commercial uses of methylene chloride to protect workers’ health.

Despite the safety concerns, when it comes to decaf coffee, experts largely agree concerns over methylene chloride are a bit of a tempest in a tea (or coffee) pot.

Here’s what experts had to say about methylene chloride exposure and whether it’s safe to continue sticking with decaf.

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Methylene chloride is a colorless liquid that has a range of uses. When it comes to food production specifically, the FDA allows for methylene chloride use in three different circumstances.

One is in decaf coffee production—the chemical is used to remove the caffeine, explained Taylor Wallace, PhD, food scientist and founder of the Think Healthy Group, a food science and nutrition consulting firm.

“Coffee beans are first boiled in hot water and then rinsed with methylene chloride, which selectively bonds with caffeine,” Wallace told Health. “The methylene chloride/caffeine compound is then removed.”

From there, he said, coffee beans are dried and roasted at approximately 400 degrees or higher, “which removes basically all of the remaining methylene chloride, minus a very tiny residual amount.”

The FDA also permits small amounts of methylene chloride residue in hops extract, which is used to manufacture certain beers. The chemical is also sometimes used in spice production.

Beyond this, methylene chloride is most widely used as an industrial solvent and paint stripper. The chemical can also be found in aerosol products, spray paints, car cleaners, and can be used to manufacture camera film.

To choose more minimally-processed foods, you’ve probably heard the admonition not to consume ingredients you don’t recognize. So it’s understandable if methylene chloride’s name—and function as a paint stripper—make it sound like something to avoid.

As the EDF’s petition mentions, methylene chloride has been linked to cancer—it’s considered a probable human carcinogen.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also states that workplace exposure to methylene chloride can lead to an increased risk of cancer and problems with the heart, liver, central nervous system, and skin. This exposure can happen via inhalation or contact with skin while people are working.

Despite this, experts agree people don’t necessarily need to panic about their decaf coffee consumption. The FDA keeps tight control over methylene chloride in the food supply, said Toby Amidor, RD, CDN, award-winning nutrition expert and author.

“The FDA has set rigorous standards of 10 parts per million of the methylene chloride to coffee,” she told Health. “That equates to 10 drops of water to 10 gallons.”

According to Wallace, most decaf coffee manufacturers are cautious about keeping methylene chloride levels low in their products.

“The process of decaffeination leaves methylene chloride residues well below the 10-ppm levels currently allowed by the [FDA],” he said.

Past reports—including a 2023 report by the Clean Label Project—have highlighted elevated levels of methylene chloride in certain coffee brands’ decaf products. However, even those coffees with more methylene chloride residue still fell “far below the 10-ppm level established by the FDA,” Wallace said.

While it is accurate to claim that methylene chloride is associated with cancer and other health problems, the dosage is what makes the difference, experts agree.

“There isn’t a direct link in the research showing moderate intake of decaffeinated coffee increasing risk for cancer,” Meggie Connelly, RDN, founder of Be Balanced Nutrition Services, told Health. “It’s important to remember that dosage is crucial—trace amounts in a cup of decaf coffee are significantly lower than levels causing acute toxicity.”

Even when something is a carcinogen, it doesn’t always cause cancer—the kind of exposure, the amount a person is exposed to, and other factors play a role.

In this situation, it’s unlikely that you could even drink the amount of decaf coffee it would take to increase your cancer risk, Wallace said. He speculated that it might take millions of cups of decaf to hit a dangerous threshold.

Though there’s little data on the subject, older research found that a person drinking 5 cups of decaf coffee a day might be exposed to about 12 micrograms of methylene chloride. This is a tiny amount—for comparison, there are more than 28.3 million micrograms in an ounce.

However, if you’re concerned about your exposure to methylene chloride, some companies use a decaffeinating process that avoids the chemical entirely.

“Opt for decaf coffee brands that use the Swiss Water Process or carbon dioxide method for decaffeination, both of which do not involve methylene chloride,” Connelly recommended.

Switching to a coffee brand that doesn’t use methylene chloride is an easy fix—there’s no apparent need to stop drinking decaf or to switch to regular coffee to avoid carcinogens.

In fact, said Amidor, many of us could use less caffeine, not more. Overdoing it on caffeine can lead to feelings of jitteriness, an increase in anxiety, and sleep problems.

“With caffeine now being inserted into everything from water to chocolate to bars and more, there is a need to keep caffeine at the 400 milligrams per day recommended by the FDA,” said Amidor.

A typical cup of decaf coffee contains only about 2 milligrams of caffeine, she noted, compared to a typical cup of regular coffee, which has about 95 milligrams.

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