Coffee is a beloved drink worldwide, with many people relying on their ritual cup to make it through the day.
Research has shown that coffee offers potential health benefits, specifically the high chlorogenic acid content, an antioxidant which can help prevent cancer, heart and liver disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome and aid in managing type two diabetes.
Caffeine, however, which provides the energy boosting kick, might not offer the same useful advantages. A recent U of T study links high rates of coffee consumption – more than three cups per day – in adults with slower caffeine metabolizing capabilities to an increase in kidney dysfunction.
Registered dietician and University of Alberta professor Sabina Valentine said too much caffeine can also contribute to migraines, insomnia, nervousness and anxiety, irritability and frequent urination.
Another study notes how low caffeine dosages could improve cognitive function, but those who chronically consume caffeine may develop a tolerance, diminishing its ability to increase alertness.
“When you drink coffee, you become kind of desensitized to the caffeine if you’re a regular coffee drinker,” Valentine said.
She adds, however, some people might not notice the negative side effects either.
“Death before decaf” is a popular saying among coffee-lovers, but making the switch or incorporating more decaf into your diet can help mitigate some of the adverse effects of caffeine,” said Valentine.
Chad Polski is the owner of Blue Spruce Decaf Coffee Co. in Calgary and said he decided to establish a decaf company after a friend suggested it.
“Initially I was like, ‘No, that’ll never work. The market’s not big enough,’” said Polski. “But because I’d given up caffeine and I was struggling to find decaf coffees where I’d have a choice or what I’d like, I was like, ‘Maybe that is a good idea, actually.’”
After looking into partnering with coffee companies in North America on a decaf-specific brand — and learning that none of them were interested — Polski created his own company with a focus on organic, sustainable practices.
“It was really about trying to have a product that not only tastes great and delivers on the value that I as a consumer was looking to get, but also delivers on some of those other parts that I’m concerned about … around the environment and around providing high quality, organic food for people that’s at an affordable price.”
Blue Spruce also partners with coffee farms in Thailand and Mexico which only produce shade-grown coffee, meaning farmers don’t use herbicides or pesticides to protect the beans from sunlight.
How the beans are made
There are four main ways to decaffeinate coffee, but not all of them offer equal benefits.
Two of the processes involve chemical solvents, such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate, while the other two are natural methods using the Swiss Water Process or carbon dioxide.
In 2018, the Clean Label Project reported the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned methylene chloride use in paint thinners in 1985 because it posed a carcinogenic risk to animals and potentially humans.
At the same time, the FDA found the chemical was only present in decaffeinated coffee at levels of 0.1 parts per million, and was not a significant risk to humans in their coffee.
The Clean Label Project adds, however, this number has not been reinvestigated in 35 years and the organization did find some brands which exceeded this number.
Polski knew he wanted to use a chemical-free, organic decaffeination method, so he turned to the trademarked Swiss Water process.
Erin Reed, director of marketing with Swiss Water, said the process emerged in the 1980s as a response to chemical solvent methods.
“A number of large roasters who were in the coffee industry at the time were starting to look for alternatives,” said Reed.
“The Swiss Water Process was conceived by one of those large roasters as an alternative to methylene chloride and even ethyl acetate processes.”
The method relies on green coffee beans – unroasted coffee beans – to create green coffee extract, which saturates and separates the caffeine from the beans through diffusion. Carbon filtration then removes the caffeine from the extract so Swiss Water can reuse it.
“The cool thing is the green coffee extract is kind of a living organism, if you will, and sustainable and reused,” Reed said. “Basically we haven’t had to create new green coffee extract other than the one we created for the latest production line.”
Valentine, the dietician, says green coffee beans are typically higher in chlorogenic antioxidant content – and caffeine content – meaning they are popping up in their raw form as potential weight loss supplements. According to Valentine, though, the research is not definitive.
“There are some studies that have shown that it does work, but the studies that have been done in humans are very short term and they’re not very conclusive,” she said. “So really more research needs to be done in regards to how it works, the dosage, usage and possible risks as well.”
No decaffeination method is 100 per cent effective, but the Swiss Water Process extracts 99.9 per cent of caffeine from the bean without compromising the flavour.
While Valentine notes research into whether decaf is healthier than caffeinated coffee is not definitive, she does stress how doing what is best for you is key.
“They really just show the same things – same benefits that occur with caffeinated coffee,” she said. “I think it depends on what your preference is.”
For Polski, the positive feedback customers provide about the flavour of the coffee brings Blue Spruce’s journey full circle.
“That’s the proudest I am is that I set out to have a product that I thought I wanted, and then other people that are buying it are saying the same thing.”