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Why do people drink decaf coffee?

Written by Phil

A coffee enthusiast and traveler, Phil primarily spends his days thinking and writing about coffee. He also writes for where he explores ideas of culture, psychology, and travel, and occasionally dabbles in horror.

Sometimes I feel tired, yet I can’t fall asleep. I start thinking about possible reasons why this might be, and I realized I had a final cup of coffee later in the day than usual. That’s when I began understanding why people drink decaf coffee.

Caffeine can make people uncomfortable, or anxious. It is a diuretic, which can cause dehydration. It has a half-life of 5-6 hours, which can lower sleep quality if drank in the afternoon.

Personally, I’ve started to notice that my jaw will be sore after a couple cups of coffee. Though I don’t feel like I’m holding tension there, I must be subtly clenching my jaw ever so slightly.

Other people, who are more sensitive to caffeine, may find that they are restless or uncomfortable when drinking coffee. Some may have heart or high blood pressure issues that may cause their doctors to suggest cutting back.

Why drink coffee at all if there’s no caffeine?

I’ve found myself asking this question before. If there’s no kick to it, why bother?

Well, the answer is pretty simple if the person is already a coffee drinker – it’s habit, ritual, and preference.

I love the smell of coffee, I like preparing it, and I like the environments in which it is typically served. The entire culture around this single beverage is amazing, and the further I go into this beverage, the deeper it becomes.

Some people, myself included, don’t tend to like to have a chemical crutch in their life. As one person put it after quitting caffeine:

“Coffee is just a beverage now, not a drug”.

If you’re a normal, healthy person, cutting out caffeine and having it once in a while can allow you to feel that rush from a cup instead of just bringing you back up to your baseline. The benefit of abstinence is an increased effect and more enjoyment when you do decide to indulge.

It’s a little harder to explain people who never drank coffee and decide to start with decaf.

Perhaps their friends spend a lot of time at cafes and they have come to enjoy the flavor. There are plenty of beverages and foods that use coffee as the main flavoring, which could be an entrance into enjoying the brew without its famous effects.

As well, perhaps they enjoy the flavor, smell, and environment. Perhaps they merely want the health benefits. It differs from person to person, so asking could be the easiest way to find out!

What does the “Half-life of Caffeine” mean?

In short, it’s the time that it would take to halve the amount currently there. This is easier with an example. Let’s use the easier number of 6 hours for caffeine’s half-life:

  • At 8am, you drink 100mg of caffeine.
  • At 2pm you have 50mg still in your system.
  • At 8pm, you have 25mg still there.
  • At 2am, 12.5mg.

As you can see, by the time you have your next cup, it still hasn’t fully left your system, and you’re already piling on another dose. It’s a never-ending cycle for your body, which means you will have this roller coaster of energy that is dependent on caffeine.

As well, it will cause your sleep quality to be reduced. Which leads us to…

The Effects of Caffeine

Caffeine causes a release of adrenaline, which can make the body go into a fight-or-flight mode of reaction, meaning you’ll favor more instinctive, reactive actions instead of measured, thoughtful ones.

This can also trigger irritability and anxiety, as well as raising blood pressure, shallower breathing, and stimulation of the heart.

Caffeine blocks adenosine, which is a brain chemical that makes you feel tired. It doens’t get rid of the adenosine, but rather builds up a wall that will crash down as the caffeine-constructed dam weakens.

As well, once you finally do get to sleep, caffeine can disrupt your REM sleep – the deep sleep when your body benefits most.

So, it makes you sleep worse, tightening its grip on you that you’ll need another cup in the morning.

Studies at John’s Hopkins also showed that the positive cognitive performance on puzzles and other thinking tasks shown by caffeine were not actually caused by caffeine. They found, when controlling for caffeine’s effects, that people who drank coffee performed better on caffeine because they were no longer suffering from caffeine withdrawal.

Withdrawal from caffeine can cause headaches, fatigue, sleepiness, and difficulty concentrating. It’s that flood of adenosine bearing down on you as the dam breaks, as well as the lack of quality sleep that you need to remove it from your system.

In other words, coffee made people perform worse because they were lacking caffeine – it didn’t make them perform better than if they didn’t drink it regularly.

In the book, “Why we sleep”, Matthew Walker goes over this in much greater depth, but his advice was to cut out all caffeine before 2 or 3 pm at the latest. I’ve been following that to great success, but it might be smarter to only have a cup right when you get up.

How is coffee decaffeinated?

Before the coffee has been roasted or ground, it is washed with a solvent that is typically made up of water, organic solvents or carbon dioxide. The “Organic Solvent” method is repeated until the amount of caffeine meets legal regulations to be considered decaffeinated, but can also remove some amount of oils, sugars, and other soluble elements.

There is also the Swiss Water Method, which uses Green Coffee Extract to pull the caffeine from green coffee beans. The extract is low in caffeine and the beans are high, causing a gradient pressure that pulls only the caffeine, leaving other soluble components in place.

Decaf coffee is made from regular coffee beans, but is mandated by law to have less than 97% of the caffeine removed in the USA, and 99.9% in the EU.

This means there still is a tiny dose left in the cup, but it’s so small that you probably won’t notice it unless you’re very caffeine sensitive. A common cup of drip brew tends to have around somewhere around 100mg of caffeine, so an American decaf cup will have roughly 3mg depending on the size.

Does it affect the taste?

Unfortunately, yes, it can. This applies mostly to the Organic Solvent method.

While they do their best to preserve the natural flavors, the elements that give a coffee it’s taste will be partially washed away. Some say you can tell a difference in both the smell and the taste of the coffee.

Since it’s washed away some of what makes coffee, well, coffee, it will have a milder taste and smell compared with untreated coffee.

If the lack of flavor bothers you, then you should seek out a blend that tends to have a stronger flavor to start, such as darker roasts or blends with slightly more robusta, and it will still feel like the drink you know and love.

For the Swiss Water method, it appears the healthiest and least likely to affect the flavor. I’ll write more about this in a future article.

If there’s a local roaster in your area, you can discuss it with their sales team and they should be accommodating.

What are some decaf options?

Besides straight coffee, there’s also the option of straight “chicory coffee”, which isn’t quite the same as coffee, but has some positive health effects, and is said to taste similar to a cup of joe. Or you could go for various tisanes or steamers if you’re looking for something hot in a typical cafe.

If you’re considering switching to decaf due to a strong coffee habit or negative health effects, then you may want to consider doing it slowly and under the supervision of a doctor.

Personally, after doing this research I’m considering cutting down my caffeine intake and restricting it to around noon at the latest.

What do you think? Will you continue your same caffeine habits?

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