Are you sitting down? We're about to blow your mind. Decaf tea is not completely without caffeine. It's impossible to remove all the caffeine from decaffeinated tea. Even a tea labeled decaffeinated may still have between 1 and 4 milligrams of caffeine content. If you're truly looking to live a caffeine-free existence, you may have to do a little studying before indulging in that supposedly decaf black tea.
There's no doubt that many tea types have some powerful antioxidant health benefits, but if you're sensitive to caffeine or just prefer not to have any in your diet, decaf tea might seem like a good choice. Instead, you want to look for tea labeled caffeine free as opposed to decaffeinated. Decaf tea goes through a process to reduce the naturally-occurring caffeine. There will be caffeine in black tea, green tea, oolong tea, white tea, and a type of black tea called pu'er tea.
Naturally caffeine-free teas or herbal teas have no caffeine so no processing is necessary. Herbal teas can be made from dried flowers like chamomile, herbs, leaves, seeds, or roots. Since there are no actual tea leaves from the tea plant known as Camellia sinensis, they are more like tisanes. Tisanes are used in homeopathic medicine.
The 3 Main Ways We Get Decaf Tea
1. Chemical Solvents
Tea leaves are soaked in a chemical solvent. The two used are ethyl acetate or methylene chloride. Ethyl acetate is a chemical compound that comes from fruit. Even though it's naturally derived and FDA approved, large amounts of this compound may have negative effects on the central nervous system.
Methylene chloride is a man-made compound. This is scary: it's used in paint removers, some pharmaceuticals, and aerosol sprays. OSHA lists it as possible carcinogen but the FDA allows small amounts to be used in food.
2. Carbon Dioxide
If you've ever bought a "certified organic" decaffeinated tea, this is the method that was used to remove most of the caffeine in the tea leaves. To begin the CO2 decaffeination process, the tea leaves are moistened with water and placed under pressure. Pressurized and heated CO2 passes through the tea leaves. The carbon dioxide bonds with the caffeine molecules and the caffeine is washed away without hurting the tea leaves.
3. Plain Old Hot Water
It's not a popular method since it really doesn't work that well. While hot water can remove caffeine from tea, it doesn't thoroughly work on green tea and doesn't work at all on black tea.
It really is impossible to know which process was used in the box of tea that you're drinking. Unless you see the term "certified organic" which means the carbon dioxide method was used for sure, then most likely your tea has gone through a chemical solvent process.
The decaffeination process can also change the flavor of your tea. You might not notice too much of a flavor change in your decaf Earl Grey or English Breakfast Tea, but caffeine has a bitterness that balances the blended flavors of these teas.
You also may lose some of the health benefits when you choose decaf tea over regular tea. The decaffeination process may also take the antioxidants and polyphenol compounds out with the caffeine. Similar to throwing the baby out with the bath water, decaf is not always better.
In Defense of Decaffeinated Teas
Having a box of decaf tea bags in the pantry or even a pretty jar of loose leaf decaf tea for you die hard tea drinkers is still a smart idea. For those late nights when you just need a warming cup of tea or when you have a cold but need your rest, a nice decaf Earl Grey Tea with some milk and sugar is perfect.
Decaf chai tea or decaf vanilla flavored black tea makes a great light dessert with cream and sugar and some cookies. These drinks have just enough sweetness and only a small amount of caffeine that won't have you staring at the ceiling wondering why you can't fall asleep.
Removing the caffeine from green tea is much harder than removing caffeine from black tea. Exotic black teas like decaf Ceylon or decaf Darjeeling are easy enough to find, but there's not much variety in decaf green tea.
Grassy flavored Sencha Tea is a Japanese green tea and one of the few green teas you can buy in a decaffeinated style.
Herbal Teas Are Naturally Caffeine-Free
Check out the shelves of herbal teas at the supermarkets and you'll instantly feel healthier. With flavors like ginger, peppermint, raspberry, lemon, apricot, orange, hibiscus, lavender, cinnamon spice, and so many more, it's hard to choose just one. Make a pitcher of herbal iced tea to keep in the fridge and you'll never reach for soda again.
Rooibos tea is a popular caffeine-free tea that you'll often see on the menu board at Starbucks. Made from African Red Bush leaves, it has a strong flavor like black tea but is naturally caffeine-free. Pick up a box of the Bigelow Herbal Tea Sampler next time and start tasting.
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