Is Decaf Bad for You? Science-Baked Benefits and Risks

With 97% of the caffeine removed, decaf coffee appeals to many folks who are sensitive to caffeine or just trying to consume less. As you can see, it has drastically less caffeine than a regular cup of joe, but it maintains most of the flavor and feel of drinking regular coffee. However, many people wonder if decaf coffee is bad for them.

Decaf is not just a fun drink; it provides many antioxidants that help promote heart health, blood sugar control, gut health and more. Read on to learn more about the health benefits and potential drawbacks of decaf coffee. 

How Is Decaf Coffee Made?

Unlike regular coffee, decaf coffee undergoes an additional process to remove the caffeine. This process is typically done in one of three ways—all of which involve soaking coffee beans in water before they’re roasted.

  • The first method involves using chemical solvents either directly on the beans or in the water they have been soaked in. The solvents strip away the caffeine, and most of the chemicals are removed by rinsing and roasting the beans. If you’re worried about the chemical residue, know that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has strict safety standards for how much of these chemicals can remain in decaf coffee.
  • The second method for decaffeinating coffee, the Swiss Water Process, doesn’t involve chemicals. In this method, the unroasted beans are soaked in hot water, which removes their caffeine. Then, the caffeinated water passes through a carbon filter that captures the caffeine so the water can be used to wash the next batch of beans.
  • The third method is called the supercritical carbon dioxide method. The beans are soaked in water and then exposed to carbon dioxide that’s been heated past its critical point, which means it can act as a liquid or a gas. The carbon dioxide makes its way into the coffee beans as a gas, grabs the caffeine, and then evaporates like a liquid. 

The FDA regulates all of these decaffeination methods for safety.

Health Benefits of Decaf Coffee

Healthier Gut Microbiome

Just like regular coffee, decaf coffee is loaded with antioxidants that could support your gut health. Lauren Manaker, M.S., RDN, LD, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, SC, says, “For gut health, decaf coffee can contribute positively by promoting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria due to its high content of dietary phenolic compounds, without the potential gastrointestinal disturbances sometimes provoked by caffeine.” 

While both types of coffee seem to stimulate gastric motility (which makes you have to poop), some research has found that decaf doesn’t stimulate as much acid secretion, which could be better for people with acid reflux.

Additionally, those phenolic compounds Manaker mentioned have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the colon and may support a flourishing community of good bacteria.

Improved Liver Function

A higher intake of regular coffee is associated with healthier levels of liver enzymes. Researchers previously associated this with the caffeine content, but some studies have challenged that idea. 

An older but large study found that both regular and decaf coffee consumption was associated with healthier levels of liver enzymes, calling into question the idea that it’s caffeine-related. These researchers think antioxidants, like those amazing phenolic compounds, may be responsible.

An animal study found that decaf coffee may have protective effects against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD happens when excess fat accumulates on the liver, and it’s one of the more common causes of liver diseases.

Since this was an animal study, we’ll need studies on humans to verify these potential benefits. However, the study authors believe the benefits may be related to decaf coffee’s benefits on the intestinal barrier. 

Poor functioning of the intestinal barrier—the structure responsible for nutrient absorption and defense against toxins—is linked to an increased risk of NAFLD. So, the gut and liver benefits of decaf coffee may actually be related.

Better Fasting Blood Sugar

Fasting blood sugar—a measurement of your blood sugar after fasting overnight—is often used to diagnose diabetes. Thanks to a specific type of antioxidant called chlorogenic acids, drinking decaf coffee might help lower fasting blood sugar by 4–5%.

Separate research has found that this type of antioxidant is more abundant in unblended roasted and ground coffee.

Lower Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

While there is much research on regular coffee’s impact on heart health, there is not as much on decaf coffee. That being said, some studies suggest that decaf coffee is linked with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. 

One study found that decaf coffee, along with ground and instant coffee, may be associated with a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Interestingly, participants who drank 1–3 cups per day of decaf coffee had the lowest risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Reduced Risk of Premature Death

Another benefit of decaf coffee is reducing the risk of premature death. Data has shown that drinking decaf coffee was also associated with a reduction in all-cause mortality. In a particular study with a follow-up of about 12 years, participants who drank 2–3 cups a day of decaf coffee died than those who drank more or less decaf. However, this type of study was just observational. So, we can’t be sure that drinking decaf coffee causes lower mortality rates; more research is needed to evaluate the connection further. 

Nutrition Facts

Decaf coffee has a similar nutrition composition to regular coffee, minus most of the caffeine. “Contrary to popular belief, most (if not all) decaf coffees contain some caffeine, with many containing around 8–10 mg caffeine per cup,” says Manaker. However, some contain as few as 2 milligrams per cup, so it really depends on the size and brand.

Decaf coffee does not contain calories, but it does contain some micronutrients, similar to regular coffee. One 8-ounce cup has 128 milligrams of potassium and almost 12 milligrams of magnesium—about 3% of each’s daily value. Plus, Manaker says decaf coffee is full of antioxidants like phenolic compounds.

Nutrient  1 (8-oz.) cup serving of brewed decaf coffee  1 (8-oz.) cup serving of brewed regular coffee
Calories 0 2
Carbohydrates 0 g  0 g
Total Sugars 0 g  0 g 
Dietary Fiber 0 g  0 g
Protein <1 g  <1 g 
Total Fat 0 g  0 g 
Saturated Fat 0 g  0 g 
Sodium   5 mg 5 mg 
Potassium  120 mg  116 mg 
Magnesium 12 mg 7 mg
Caffeine 2 mg 95 mg

Potential Risks

One of the biggest risks of decaf coffee is that it may stain your teeth yellowish. This might be slightly reduced by adding milk to your coffee. Plus, Manaker says this is mostly a risk if you drink it in excess.

Additionally, “Compounds found in both regular and decaf coffee may contribute to reduced mineral absorption, although the evidence is not conclusive,” says Manaker. Most studies on this are fairly old, so we need more robust, newer research to understand the true effects of decaf coffee on mineral absorption.

“For people who are sensitive to caffeine and those with certain heart conditions, regularly drinking decaf coffee can increase the frequency and severity of palpitations and certain arrhythmias,” says Robert Salazar, M.D., a cardiologist with Memorial Hermann in Houston. Therefore, it’s best to discuss any specific concerns with your healthcare provider.

There are some conflicting opinions on decaf coffee’s impact on gastrointestinal conditions like acid reflux and peptic ulcers compared to regular coffee. For example, Salazar says decaf coffee can aggravate these conditions, whereas others believe it’s the caffeine in regular coffee that worsens these conditions. 

Finally, keep in mind that decaf coffee still contains some caffeine, though just a few milligrams. If you’re super sensitive to caffeine, you may still want to be careful about how much decaf coffee you consume. As a general recommendation, Salazar suggests consuming a maximum of two to three cups per day.

When to Choose Decaf over Regular Coffee

Both regular and decaf coffee have beneficial antioxidants, so the caffeine content is the most significant consideration when choosing between regular coffee and decaf coffee. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, then decaf is probably the way to go. That could mean that caffeine causes you to become jittery or anxious, or it could mean that you have a heart or digestive condition that’s exacerbated by caffeine. People with severe anxiety, certain cardiovascular diseases, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), renal impairment, seizures or who are pregnant should be cautious about caffeine intake.

Regular coffee may work better for you if you’re not sensitive to caffeine or have significant health conditions. After all, many people rely on coffee’s stimulant effects to combat fatigue. Plus, caffeine might help relieve migraines, enhance athletic performance, treat depression, and improve neurocognitive decline.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Is decaf coffee worse or better for you than caffeinated coffee?

Both types of coffee have antioxidants that support health. However, decaf coffee is better for people who are sensitive to caffeine, have a heart condition or are pregnant, whereas regular coffee is better for those who want the stimulating effects of caffeine. 

Is it OK to drink decaf coffee every day?

According to our experts, drinking one to three cups of decaf coffee every day is fine for most people. However, it’s best to consult your health care provider for personalized advice. 

What’s the point of decaf coffee?

Decaf coffee allows you to enjoy the flavor and experience of a cup of coffee without all the caffeine. It’s a great option for people who are sensitive to caffeine, have a heart condition or are pregnant. 

What are the negatives of decaf coffee?

Decaf coffee won’t give you the same alertness as regular coffee since it barely has any caffeine. Plus, it could cause your teeth to turn yellow if you drink it a lot, and it may still give people issues who are very sensitive to caffeine.

The Bottom Line

Decaf coffee is a great way to experience drinking coffee with about 97% less caffeine. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, it’s an excellent alternative to regular coffee. It may even exert health benefits like reducing fasting blood sugar and supporting your gut microbiome. But don’t get carried away just because it’s decaf; it’s still best not to overdo it. According to experts and research, one to three cups a day seems to be the sweet spot for decaf coffee intake.

EatingWell uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
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