The health benefits of tea are widely explored and are only looking better and better as time goes on. Decaffeinated tea, on the other hand, typically doesn’t fare as well on the health and wellness side of things. There’s some truth behind the claims that decaf tea is something to avoid, but much of it is undeserved and a result of confusion and poor explanation.
Let’s break down the questions and claims of whether decaffeinated tea is good or bad for you. A generalized blanket answer won’t do justice to the tea, so let’s dive into the facts.
What is Decaffeinated Tea?
Let’s start simple: Decaffeinated (decaf for short) tea is tea leaves that have undergone a process that removes most of the caffeine. By law, tea labelled “decaffeinated” must contain less than 2.5% of its original caffeine. Because of this law and limitations in the process, no decaf tea is actually caffeine free.
How is Tea Decaffeinated?
There are four primary methods to decaffeinating tea in the modern world. Methods well known to use toxic chemicals have been banned, but that doesn’t mean these four used currently are safe.
Here’s a basic rundown of each process and why some tea drinkers are skeptical of them.
Carbon Dioxide – This process is considered to be the safest and the most preserving of the tea’s flavors. Pressurized liquid carbon dioxide attracts the small caffeine molecules out of the tea leaves and leaves the larger molecules responsible for flavor behind.
Ethyl Acetate – Tea leaves are soaked in a ethyl acetate, a solution that occurs naturally in tea leaves and some fruits. Though the process is not associated with health risks, it is well known to decay the flavor of the tea. Some tea drinkers claim this method can result in a chemical taste.
Methylene Chloride – Tea leaves are often soaked in methylene chloride, which bonds with the caffeine molecules. The tea leaves can be strained out with most of the caffeine left behind. Methylene chloride is widely considered unfit for consumption, but the process leaves traces of the compound on the tea leaves. This method and its safety is in much dispute, though it is widely used.
Water Processing – This process is generally associated with coffee beans, but some tea producers have begun using it on their tea leaves. Hot water extracts the caffeine, along with flavors and almost everything else. The water is filtered through a carbon filter, which catches the caffeine molecules. The water is returned to the tea leaves, where they soak up the extracted flavors again. Though safe, it is widely unexplored in the tea realm.
Advantages of Decaffeinated Tea
If you are one to lose deep sleep because of too much caffeine, decaffeinated tea is something worth looking into. You still acquire some of the benefits of tea, but don’t have to worry about laying in bed awake for hours.
Disadvantages of Decaffeinated Tea
Decaf tea is not without its drawbacks. Most of them are harmless, but undesirable.
If caffeine is something you are determined to avoid, decaffeinated tea will still cause issues for you. Even though the tea leaves will contain only 2.5% of the original caffeine at a maximum, they still are able to irritate and upset the hyper-sensitive.
Unfortunately, the decaffeination process doesn’t only remove caffeine. The idea that decaffeinated tea is generally less flavorful is not made up out of thin air. Most of the methods listed above take tolls on the tea leaves’ precious flavors and aromas, wrapped up in other compounds that the solvents carry away during the decaffeination process. While the Carbon dioxide method preserves more flavors that any other, it is not widely practiced.
Antioxidants in Decaf
Polyphenols, also called flavonoids, are a type of chemical that are associated with a slew of health benefits and are found in very high concentrations in tea. These antioxidants are the target of much enthusiasm for tea enthusiasts and have received praise across the world for their ability to prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease, and slow the aging process brought on by free radicals.
Dr. Andrew Weil, a world leader in the natural health movement and tea enthusiast, claims that tea decaffeinated through the chemical processes lose close to 70% of their polyphenols, but that tea decaffeinated through the water process retained around 95%. The carbon dioxide process was not mentioned.
According to Dr. Andrew Weil, most of the decaffeinated tea out there has been stripped of many of its incredible health benefits, a disappointing reality.
The most common of the four decaffeination methods uses Methylene Chloride, which is also under the most fire for leaving trace amounts of dangerous chemicals on the tea leaves. The most respected methods are the Water and Carbon Dioxide processes, though they are far less common.
Decaffeinated tea is good for those who want to limit caffeine intake, although many of the health benefits that prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease, and free radical aging are stripped away, unless decaffeinated by the water process.
The Final Call
Decaffeinated tea poses a risk for anyone who is severely sensitive to caffeine, since some of the caffeine remains. If this is a danger for you, opt for a caffeine-free herbal tea, but not a decaffeinated tea.
While there are many debates as to the health consequences of the chemical processes, the scope of the potential harm is not yet determined. For the sake of caution, look for tea sellers that are transparent about their decaffeination methods and buy from the ones that use the Carbon Dioxide or Water methods.
Tea decaffeinated in these two methods is not bad for you, but it may not offer the same health benefits as tea that has not undergone a decaffeination process. Your best bet is to find water-processed decaf teas if you want to avoid potentially harmful chemicals and benefit from the tea health-wise at the same time.