What is Decaf Tea? Is It As Healthy As Regular Tea?
The health benefits of tea have been heavily researched and have advocates from traditional science as well as complementary medicine. Alternatively, decaffeinated tea isn’t recommended or toted for its benefits in the health and wellness space. Is there any rationale as to why decaf tea isn’t promoted as much as its counterpart?
There may be some truth behind the claims that decaf tea isn’t as beneficial to health, but much of it is undeserved and not fully explained. Let’s discuss the difference between decaffeinated versus regular tea, and dive into the claims on whether it is good or bad for our health.
What is Decaf 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.
How Much Caffeine is in Decaf Tea?
The FDA states that decaf teas have less caffeine than their regular caffeinated colleagues, but they still contain some caffeine. For example, decaf tea can have anywhere from 2-15 milligrams in an 8-ounce cup. If you react to caffeine in a negative way you may want to avoid, find a brand that has the smallest amount of caffeine possible or try a caffeine-free tea.
There are several online databases that provide estimates of the caffeine content of certain foods and beverages such as coffee and tea. However, the amount in these brewed beverages can vary depending on such factors as how and where the coffee beans and tea leaves were grown, how they were picked, what season they were from, how they were processed, and how the beverage product is prepared.
Many packaged foods, including beverages and dietary supplements containing caffeine, voluntarily provide information on the label as to how much caffeine they contain. Consumers should take care when consuming for the first time a new packaged food containing added caffeine if the amount of caffeine in the food is not declared on the label.
How is Tea Decaffeinated?
There are a few different processes used to decaffeinate tea. Each of them works differently and produces a different effect on the final product, including flavor and nutrient content. The downside is that tea manufacturers don’t have to state which method of decaffeination they use.
However, it is good to know, given you can always inquire with the specific company and get more information, or look for tea companies that are open and honest about their decaffeination process so you can be more educated when it comes to what is important to you in relation to drinking decaf tea. Here are some basics about the most common decaffeination methods:
- Carbon Dioxide: This is one of the most popular methods of decaffeination. It is also known as a natural method of decaffeination that allows for retaining more of the tea flavours and compounds that link to health benefits.
It involves mixing the tea leaves with liquid carbon dioxide undergoing high pressure and temperature until the carbon dioxide turns into a solvent that magnetizes the small caffeine molecules from the leaves and leaves the larger flavor molecules behind.
- Ethyl Acetate: This is usually promoted as one the most natural process of decaffeination because ethyl acetate occurs naturally in the leaves. However, this process also alters the flavor profile 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 them, 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 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.
Benefits of Decaffeinated Tea
Great for the caffeine-sensitive
We humans are unique. As with many different foods, beverages, and eating patterns, every person reacts differently to caffeine. The human body is complex, so there are numerous reasons as to why people react so differently to the same compound, such as caffeine, but one reason appears to be genetics.
Scientists have identified genetic variants that influence how your body handles caffeine. Variants in these genes may affect how quickly the body breaks down and clears away caffeine.
Those with stomach acid issues (e.g., gastroesophageal reflux disease aka GERD) or other digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or irritable bowel disease (IBD) may also be sensitive to caffeine.
If you are one to lose deep sleep because of too much caffeine and/or caffeine that gives you jitters, elevated heart rate, makes you nervous, causes reflux, or stomach upset, decaf tea could certainly be a better alternative for you. You would still acquire some of the benefits of tea, but don’t have to worry about the side effects that may come with caffeine sensitivity.
Antioxidant properties which reduce free radicals
Most of the benefits you get from drinking tea come from the antioxidants you receive from it – which in tea are called flavonoids or catechins (a class of flavonoids).
Antioxidants fight free radicals that can change cells, damage DNA, and cause cell death. Free radicals can lead to cancer and heart disease and speed the aging process.
Antioxidants in decaffeinated tea, especially green tea, can help neutralize free radicals and may reduce or prevent the damage they cause. Green and black teas provide the most antioxidants.
Research has shown that the flavonoids in tea may kill cancerous cells and prevent them from growing. Due to these antioxidant properties, tea has been shown to prevent certain cancers such as bladder, gastric, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Researchers found that women under the age of 50 who drank 3 or more cups of tea per day were roughly 40 percent likely to develop breast cancer than those who did not consume tea.
Decaf tea will still retain at least 30% of its antioxidant properties, but up to 70% depending on the processing method, so could still yield similar benefits if one is caffeine sensitive or prefers decaf teas.
Can improve cholesterol levels
Researchers believe that that the flavonoids in tea are responsible for its cholesterol-lowering effect. These types of polyphenols may block cholesterol from being absorbed in the intestine and help rid the body of it.
Drinking tea can also assist in preventing atherosclerosis, a condition in which the artery walls thicken due to the accumulation of fatty materials, through the reduction of cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Improved mental health and alertness
Research has shown that drinking tea lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. There has also been evidence to support that drinking at least 100 milliliters (about half a cup) of green tea a day seems to lower the risk of developing depression and dementia.
Many believe that by taking out the caffeine you remove its ability to provide mental alertness. The catechins present in tea are thought to make people feel calmer and improve memory and attention when consumed on their own.
So, while caffeinated teas may lead to a higher level of mental alertness due to the caffeine, the antioxidants may also help produce a calming and still provide some effect on mental alertness, particularly if you choose a decaf tea that is processed using a method which retains more antioxidants.
Why are there Claims that Decaf Tea Provides Fewer Health Benefits than Regular Tea?
Reduced antioxidant properties
As it was alluded to in the above sections, when it comes to health benefits, tea that undergoes a decaffeination process which can lose 30-70 percent of its polyphenols – also called flavonoids, or catechins (you may hear these words interchangeably, but they all refer to as antioxidants).
Antioxidants are a major benefit in the first place because they help to rid the body of free radicals and also contribute to health benefits. 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 regular caffeinated black or green tea.
Another concern is that packaging usually doesn’t disclose the decaffeination method, so the average person may be unaware as to how much the antioxidant content could be reduced.
However, there are many people who are sensitive to caffeine, and getting the 30-70% of antioxidants can still be beneficial – especially when trying to avoid the potential symptoms of insomnia, jitters, reflux, stomach upset, etc.
The decaffeination process also changes the flavor of the tea. Caffeine is naturally bitter, so even the best decaffeination methods alter the taste of the tea by removing this flavor element. However, there are many people who drink and enjoy the flavor of decaf teas.
Chemical solvents in some decaf teas
Additionally, some people may prefer not to drink decaf teas where chemical solvents are used in the process of decaffeinating (e.g., the ethyl acetate process where it is difficult to remove this compound from the leaves).
While all methods of decaffeination are now deemed safe and there is no solid evidence to conclude that one is safer than the other, you may prefer to opt for an organic version, which will use a non-chemical decaffeination method (or reach out to the manufacturer to inquire which method is used).
Caffeine-Free Tea or Herbal Tea
Decaffeinated tea has to undergo processing to reduce its naturally occurring caffeine. All true teas – green tea, black tea, oolong tea, etc., all naturally contain caffeine. However, it’s impossible to remove all the caffeine during decaffeination, which is why decaf tea is never completely caffeine-free.
Caffeine-free teas, on the other hand, have zero naturally containing caffeine. These are typically referred to as herbal teas or tisanes, and they are made from dried flowers, herbs, leaves, seeds, or roots.
Examples of herbal teas that are caffeine-free are chamomile, ginger, and peppermint teas. Technically, they aren’t ‘true’ teas since they don’t contain leaves of the tea plant camellia Sinensis plant, as most teas do.
Most health organizations state a general recommendation to limit caffeine to 400mg daily or less, however, there is some evidence to support that even up to 1200mg caffeine daily can promote health benefits.
Now, this is caffeine in general – it kind of reduces the health benefits if all of your caffeine-containing beverages are loaded with added sugar and fats. Some added sugars and fats are okay, but as with most things (natural or not), it is the ‘dose that makes the poison.
Overall, unless there is a specific health problem or sensitivity preventing you from doing so, regular tea may be the best option for you. Tea may contain caffeine, but it’s such a small amount of caffeine that only those with serious sensitivities will be affected by it.
If caffeine sensitivity is a concern, you can opt for decaffeinated tea or naturally caffeine-free teas. Caffeine-free or decaffeinated teas are not inherently ‘bad for you’ — they still have health benefits of the polyphenols in tea that may help reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, and free radical aging, just at a much less potent concentration.
About the Author
Felicia is a Registered Dietitian and nutritionist with a Master’s in Applied Human Nutrition. She has a strong wellness background and experience of working at research centers and healthcare/private practice for 12+ years.
Felicia is passionate about helping others fight through the massive amounts of nutrition misinformation in the online world, and to navigate life and health, but most importantly, enjoying it while doing it.