More than 400 million cups of coffee — the most popular source of caffeine— are consumed annually. But drinking caffeine has fallen a little out of favor with health-conscious millennials and Gen Z consumers. More and more people want to optimize their day without enhancements that can affect their health goals — and have negative side effects like unstable energy levels. Caffeine sensitivity is getting a ton of attention with giants like Starbucks starting to highlight the amount of caffeine in each one of their drinks.
So, to order a decaf mocha coffee is not a big deal, but what about tea, the second most popular source of caffeine? Let’s spill.
What is Decaffeinated Tea?
Decaffeinated tea refers to tea that has undergone a process of decaffeination. The term decaf, however, is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means that tea labeled decaf may still contain traces of caffeine, depending on the process by which it is decaffeinated.
The term decaf is not regulated by the FDA, which means that tea labeled decaf may still contain traces of caffeine.
All types of tea can undergo that process, but black tea, oolong tea and green tea are some of the most popular varieties due to their popularity, and natural high caffeine content. It is common for decaf tea to contain anywhere around 1-8 milligrams of caffeine, compared to 30-60 milligrams in regular black tea, and 25-50 milligrams in green tea.
Is there a difference between caffeine-free and decaffeinated tea?
The terms are not synonymous. Caffeine-free refers to tea leaves that are naturally free of caffeine — for instance, herbal teas like chamomile or jasmine. But decaffeinated refers to teas that have gone through a process of decaffeination.
How Is Tea Decaffeinated?
“Caffeine levels in tea really vary. It depends on what tea leaves were picked, what season, what area they are from,” says Jessica Boyd, founder and CEO of Tea Sip in Houston, Texas. “Brand new tea leaves have more caffeine because they are protecting themselves, whereas older leaves tend to have less.”
There are four main processes to remove caffeine. Each of them works differently and produce a different final effect, including flavor. The downside is that tea manufacturers don’t have to state which method of decaffeination they use. But it is good to know, given you can always inquire with the specific company and get more information, or look for tea sellers that are transparent about their decaffeination methods so you can be more educated about exactly what health benefits or concerns you could be exposing yourself to. Here is what you have to know about each:
- Carbon Dioxide: This is the most popular and most natural method of decaffeination. “This method is the only method approved for organic teas because it doesn’t use any chemicals,” says Boyd. It involves mixing the tea leaves with liquid carbon dioxide undergoing high pressure and temperature until the carbon dioxide turns into a solvent that attracts the small caffeine molecules from the leaves and leaves the larger flavor molecules behind. One of the biggest benefits of this method is that it does the best job at preserving the flavor, composition — and therefore, health benefits — of the tea leaves.
- Ethyl Acetate: This is usually hailed as the most natural process of decaffeination because ethyl acetate occurs naturally in tea leaves. However, this process also alters the flavor profile of the tea the most. Tea leaves are soaked in the chemical solvent to remove the caffeine, but then it is nearly impossible to remove the chemical from the tea leaves, resulting in a tea that has a slightly bitter taste. Additionally, this process also alters the antioxidant molecules in the tea, making it so its health benefits — removing free radicals from the body — are less potent.
- Water Processing: This process involves the tea leaves being soaked in hot water, passed through a carbon filter that extracts the caffeine and the flavor but then that water is added back to the leaves to soak up the extracted flavor again. This usually results in slightly more watery teas that are not as potent. It is deemed as safe, but it is a process that is primarily associated with coffee beans, so it is a little unexplored in the tea world..
- Methylene Chloride: The process is similar to that of ethyl acetate, where the tea leaves are soaked in methylene chloride and then sifted. It does a better job at keeping the tea’s flavor profile, but this method is perhaps the most controversial of the four since methylene chloride is widely considered unsafe for consumption — it has been linked to cancer and birth defects. The FDA regulates this method.
As for flavor, sadly, most decaffeination methods take a toll on the teas’ flavor profiles. However, if you need decaf, opt for tea that has been decaffeinated via the carbon dioxide method, which preserves the flavor of the tea more than any other method.
Decaffeinated Tea Cons
When it comes to health benefits, experts say that tea that undergoes a decaffeination process loses about 70 percent of its polyphenols — also called flavonoids. Antioxidants are a major benefit in the first place because they help to rid the body of free radicals. Teas tend to be rich in a compound called EGCG, or epigallocatechin gallate. So if you are drinking caffeine for the antioxidant benefits, these are molecules you want, and you will get the most “bang for your buck” with straight-up black or green tea.
The Final Call
If caffeine sensitivity is a big concern, you can try to drink tea with lower levels of caffeine, like white tea. Plus, a caffeine-free or decaffeinated tea is not evil — they still have health benefits like prevention of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and free radical aging, just at a much less potent concentration. “All tea has less caffeine than coffee, plus you get that calm wakefulness and more health benefits,” says Boyd. Lastly, you can always opt for herbal tisanes like red rooibos, green rooibos or honeybush.
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