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How Do They Decaffeinate Coffee Beans?
Decaffeinating coffee beans may seem like a horrendous thing to do to such a wonderful and stimulating drink, but a lot of people do try to avoid caffeine for health reasons so decaf coffee does serve its purpose. Since coffee beans naturally have caffeine in them, the only way to have a decaffeinated coffee is to actively remove it from the beans. The processes used for decaffeinating coffee beans are pretty complex, and not really easy to explain to anyone who doesn't have a degree in chemistry.
In terms of maintaining the natural flavor of the coffee, and using the fewest chemicals, the Swiss Water process is considered the best way of decaffeinating coffee. Green (unroasted) coffee beans are soaked in pure water until all the caffeine and other chemicals have been dissolved from the beans. The caffeine is filtered out of the water, leaving an extract that contains all the elements of the coffee bean but without the caffeine. Fresh green beans are added to this liquid, and the caffeine naturally dissolves but all the remaining oils and compounds stay in the beans because there is no variation between the beans and the liquid. This method has no harsh chemicals, and just relies on basic chemical principles to pull the caffeine out of the bean. Beans decaffeinated this way will cost more than any other methods.
The other more common method uses ethyl acetate to soak the beans and leach out the caffeine. It's not as healthy, but it's faster and cheaper for the manufacturer. Don't be fooled by labels that claim this is a natural method. Technically, ethyl acetate can be produced from natural sources (fruits or vegetables), but that doesn't make it any less of a chemical solvent. In some cases, synthetic ethyl acetate is used but it's still called a "natural method". If you want something truly natural, stick to Swiss Water decaf.
As a result of the decaffeination process there is about a 97% reduction in the caffeine levels. It's usually not enough to cause any reactions to the body, and you won't notice any of the usual effects of caffeine. But you have any particular health issues where you cannot take any caffeine at all, then you really shouldn't be drinking decaf coffee. It's definitely not caffeine-free. Ironically, all of these processing options may become moot in the future as a naturally-decaffeinated form of the coffee bean has been discovered recently in Ethiopia. They are still studying the genetic flaw that keeps the plants from producing caffeine, but it could mean that unprocessed decaffeinated coffee beans may be on the shelves some day in the future.