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The taste of coffee is great, but some of the side effects aren’t pleasant. When you are looking for all the flavor of your favorite Colombian coffee or Brazilian coffee beans without the frequent bathroom breaks, a cup of decaf coffee seems like a great option.
But is decaf coffee a diuretic? In this article, we’ll take a look at that question, what you can expect when switching to decaf (Is caffeine withdrawal real?) and the other impacts decaf coffee can have on your health.
What Is a Diuretic?
A diuretic is any substance that causes your kidneys to produce more urine. This results in your body expelling additional salt and water, above and beyond the amount it would otherwise.
Diuretic drugs, also known as water pills, are often used to treat high blood pressure and various other conditions. Not all diuertics require a prescription — some natural diuretics include alcohol, caffeine, and parsley.
Are Diuretics Harmful?
Not necessarily. Most common substances we think of as diuretics — including coffee — are classified as only mild diuretics. That is, drinking a cup of regular coffee will add more water to your body than it will cause your body to expel.
Overall, coffee does not increase your risk of dehydration, the primary concern associated with diuretics. In fact, it has an overall hydrating effect.
That being said, coffee is still not recommended as your primary source of hydration because it is not as hydrating as water and has other potential side effects if consumed in large quantities.
What Makes Coffee Diuretic?
Caffeine is the cause of coffee’s diuretic effect. Any caffeinated food or drink — chocolate, tea, energy drinks, etc. — will be at least a mild diuretic.
How Is Decaf Coffee Made?
Before we jump into details about decaf, let’s take a quick look at how it’s made as these processes have an impact on the amount of caffeine removed and other potential changes to the final beverage.
No decaf is 100% caffeine-free. The USDA only requires that 97% of the caffeine be removed for coffee beans to qualify as decaf. That’s not bad for most people, but if you have a caffeine allergy or sensitivity then it can still be enough to cause problems.
There are three main processes used for the commercial decaffeination of coffee beans.
- Carbon dioxide method — The coffee beans are soaked in supercritical (high temperature and pressure) CO2, causing the caffeine to diffuse from the beans into the CO2. The CO2 is then pumped out, leaving decaffeinated coffee beans behind.
- Solvent method — Either ethyl acetate or methylene chloride is mixed with steamed coffee beans. Once the caffeine has bonded with the solvent, both are extracted from the beans through further steaming.
- The Swiss Water Process — The beans are soaked in pressurized water, which extracts the caffeine along with sugars, oils, and acids. The extract is then passed through activated charcoal to remove the caffeine before using the extract to soak another set of beans. Since the water is already saturated with oils, sugars, and acids, it only removes caffeine from the new set of beans. Not only is this process safer (no harsh solvents) and more environmentally friendly — it removes 99.9% of caffeine, the most of any of the processes!
Does Decaf Coffee Still Have Caffeine?
Yes, it’s not possible to fully remove the caffeine from coffee beans. Most methods of making decaf coffee remove just over 97% of the caffeine. For a typical 8 ounce cup of coffee, that could still mean you are getting between 2-6 milligrams of caffeine.
If you want coffee with the lowest possible concentration of caffeine, you should always go for coffee that was decaffeinated using the Swiss Water Process, as facilities using this method are regularly audited to ensure that they are removing at least 99.9% of the caffeine from coffee beans.
The decaffeination process is not the only important factor, though. The amount of caffeine in the original beans as well as the roasting method — darker roasts are less caffeinated — will impact how much caffeine is in your drink. Beans that were initially low in caffeine, decaffeinated using the Swiss Water Method, and subsequently dark roasted could have less than 0.1 mg of caffeine.
Is Decaf Coffee a Diuretic?
Decaf coffee is not a significant diuretic. That tiny amount of remaining caffeine will have a minor effect on your need to urinate, but it will be virtually indistinguishable from the effect of water. Even people that are particularly sensitive to the effect should be fine if they go with Swiss Water processed decaf coffee.
Some caffeinated beverages — including most energy drinks — may have diuretic impacts that aren’t directly related to the caffeine. This is not the case with coffee, so removing the caffeine really is all it takes to undo this one side effect.
Can You Drink Decaf If You Have a Caffeine Allergy?
Don’t take medical advice from an internet blogger! But seriously, if you have a diagnosed caffeine allergy, you should be following what your doctor says. Their MD trumps my PhD for anything related to your health and wellbeing. Most likely, they’ll tell you to avoid any level of caffeine, even that little bit found in decaf.
Can You drink Decaf If You Have a Caffeine Intolerance?
Caffeine allergies are rare conditions in which your body sees caffeine as an invasive species. Most people that suspect they have an allergy actually have a caffeine intolerance, which is a qualitatively different — and much less severe — condition.
With a caffeine intolerance, your body is more sensitive to small amounts of caffeine and takes longer to metabolize any amount of the substance. You may still be able to consume decaf, but probably not in large amounts. If you notice any impact — especially if you are seeing symptoms indicative of a caffeine allergy — you should cut off your decaf intake and get a doctor’s opinion.
Other Health Impacts of Decaf Coffee
Caffeine doesn’t just cause your kidneys to produce more urine. Several of the other health impacts of coffee come from the caffeine content.
Does decaf coffee give you the jitters?
The first symptom that comes to mind is probably the coffee jitters. This shaky, anxious feeling that you get when you drink coffee is caused by caffeine, so decaf coffee will not give most people the jitters. If you are particularly sensitive to caffeine though, even that tiny amount may be enough for you to feel the effect.
Does decaf coffee affect blood pressure?
Coffee actually has two competing impacts on your blood pressure. Remember when I said that diuretic drugs are used to treat high blood pressure? The diuretic effect of caffeine can decrease your blood pressure, but that effect is fairly minimal. Drinking excessive amounts of caffeine is more likely to raise your blood pressure, particularly if you consume more than four cups of coffee in a day.
Is decaf coffee more acidic?
Most of the time, some amount of acid will be removed during with the caffeine, so decaf will have less acid. Depending on the process used to decaffeinate the coffee, though, there may actually be an increase in acid in some cases.
Regardless of the acid content, decaf is a better option if you have acid reflux, GERD, or other acid-related health problems. Caffeine can stimulate acid production in the stomach, often to the extent that the effects of caffeine matters more for acid reflux than the actual amount of acid in the coffee.
Is Decaf Coffee Healthier for You?
Not necessarily. Coffee contains a huge amount of antioxidants, which are the drivers of many of the health benefits of the beverage. The decaffeination removes some of these antioxidants — up to 15% with some decaffeination methods! That still leaves quite a bit of antioxidant-goodness in decaf coffee beans, but not as much as you would get with regular coffee.
If you need to cut back on your caffeine, then decaf is probably the way to go. But don’t be fooled by claims that decaffeinated coffee is healthier for everyone.
What Should You Expect When Switching to Decaf?
If you decide to take the plunge and switch your caffeinated lifestyle over to decaf, there are several symptoms that you might experience. These stem from the fact that caffeine is addictive.
Well, it’s kind of addictive. Caffeine is a stimulant that, when used regularly, produces a minor physical dependence. Caffeine withdrawal is nothing like withdrawal from more addictive substances. In particular, there is no physical harm in quitting caffeine cold turkey.
If you are a 2+ cup per day drinker, you may experience symptoms for a couple of days. These can include headaches, fatigue, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, depressed mood, irritability, tremors, and decreased energy.
The more you drink, the more severe those symptoms could be and the longer they might last. You should generally be over it all in a few days, though, even in the worst case scenario.
How Much Decaf Coffee Can You Safely Drink Each Day?
When it comes to caffeine content, you can safely drink dozens of cups of decaf a day without any health risks. The recommended limit for daily caffeine intake for adults is 400 mg, which amounts to 66 cups even for the most caffeine-heavy decaf coffee.
I’m going to go ahead and assume you don’t drink that many cups of coffee most days. If you do, you may have bigger problems than caffeine intake.
Too much decaf may contribute to an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease. According to the research, the risk of heart disease is due to the fact that decaffeinated coffee is more likely to be made from coffee beans with a higher fat content. The research was specifically looking at people that drink six more cups of decaf per day, so that gives a good upper limit on the safe decaf coffee consumption levels.
Should You Switch to Decaf Coffee?
If you are looking to escape the diuretic effect of caffeine, decaf may be a great option. If that’s too severe a shift, you could also try half-caf instead. When it comes to the general health impact, decaf is only advantageous if your health issues — acid reflux, allergies, etc. — are related to caffeine.
For most people, the minor differences in fat content, antioxidants, and acid content will likely make decaf and regular coffee comparably healthy options.
If you’ve decided to make the switch, I have good news: Many of the world’s top coffee brands have gotten into decaf, so the quality has come a long way from where it used to be. Top Italian brands like Illy and Lavazza, some of the best Sumatran coffee beans, and even low-acid coffee options and Nespresso pods are now available in decaf.
Do you have a different reason for going decaf? Or maybe there are other health benefits that I should be covering. Let me know in the comments.