What’s The Difference Between Decaffeinated and Regular Coffee?

Decaf vs regular coffee

One of the most consumed and popular drinks in the world today is coffee. In fact, it is ranked second only to a good old-fashioned cup of tea. The popularity of coffee is growing year-on-year as well due in part to the booming growth in coffee shops. Each and every week, new coffee beverages seem to appear to suit all tastes and needs. Long, short and tall drinks, iced, and milky too. Mocha’s, Latte’s, Ristrettos, and cortado to name but a few.

It is clear, that our love for coffee is here to stay but it has long been thought that caffeine is the reason for our coffee cravings. If so, why is there a good market for decaffeinated coffee and how does it really match up to its caffeinated brother?

What is Caffeine?

To answer these questions we first need to understand the relationship between the drug, caffeine, and the coffee beverage. From there we will be able to see what really is the difference between decaf and regular coffee. All coffee beans naturally contain an element of caffeine. Tea leaves and cacao beans also contain natural caffeine but many soft drinks and medications will contain regulated man-made caffeine.

When we consume caffeine either in coffee or other sources, it makes us feel more alert and generally more energetic. This is the reason why it is classed as a drug. Caffeine has been the subject of many studies on the health benefits of drinking it. The general consensus these days is that in moderation, it is actually good for us. Some of the benefits of caffeine, when drunk in moderation include:

  • Boosts your mood.
  • Boosts your metabolism and can help with weight loss.
  • Can help with your mental health.
  • Can boost your physical performance.
  • Is a good source of antioxidants to help reduce the risk of some cancers, diabetes Type 2 and heart disease.

What Does Caffeine Do To The Body?

Which brings us to the reason why decaffeinated coffee came into existence. Some people can appreciate the taste of coffee and like the social niceties of drinking a cup of Joe with friends and acquaintances but just can’t handle the effects that caffeine can induce. Some of the negative effects of drinking too much caffeine include:

  • Feelings of anxiety from the release of too much adrenaline.
  • Causes insomnia, because too much caffeine can make falling asleep quite difficult.
  • Problems with indigestion and other digestion issues. Caffeine can increase bowel movements and cause diarrhea.
  • Rhabdomyolysis – This is the breakdown of muscles. In some rare cases, excessive caffeine intake can cause problems with this.

These are some of the extreme effects on our bodies of drinking too much caffeine and are not typical. So don’t worry, when caffeine is used in moderation, the health benefits can far outweigh the problems listed above.

What Is Decaffeinated Coffee and How Is It Made?

Decaffeinated coffee or decaf for short is essentially the same as regular coffee except the coffee goes through a process to strip away around 97% of all the caffeine. Most people who drink decaf coffee are under the mistaken belief that their drink contains zero caffeine. In truth, coffee beans will always contain a small amount of caffeine. This leads us to the processes involved in how to remove the caffeine. Sorry if this gets a bit geeky for the next few paragraphs. Normal service will be resumed, I promise.

Washing unroasted coffee beans in a water-based chemical solution will remove the vast majority of caffeine from the beans. Some of the chemical processes include activated charcoal, supercritical carbon dioxide, methylene chloride, ethyl acetate. I know, it sounds delicious, doesn’t it?

There are other ways of indirectly removing caffeine from green coffee beans which involves soaking the raw beans in hot water for several hours to remove the caffeine from the beans. The beans are then removed and the remaining water has a chemical treatment to remove the caffeine. This water is then evaporated and added to new beans and the same process is repeated until equilibrium is achieved with the beans and the water. The beans have only ever been treated with water solution using this method which is why it is described as indirect.

Although washing coffee beans in these solutions will remove the vast majority of caffeine, the process will also strip out a lot of the good stuff as well. The indirect method does a better job of not removing coffee bean oils and consequently flavor because the beans are only ever treated with water and not directly with chemicals like the other processes.

So this covers the caffeine removal processes and so to summarise this when caffeine is removed, it will also mean a certain amount of the things that make coffee taste great, and also some of the health benefits are removed as well. Some of the health benefits removed during the decaffeination process include.

  • Antioxidants, which are great for heart health are always partially removed during the roasting process but this is increased during the decaffeinating process as well.
  • PH Levels of coffee beans are decreased as well. This results in a more acidic brew.
  • Vitamin B2, B3, and B5 are reduced in decaf coffee, these vitamins are great for breaking down fats, cholesterol, and also for bone health.
  • Manganese is known to be great for reducing blood sugar levels.

Can You Tell The Difference Between Decaf and Regular Coffee?

We can clearly see that caffeine in coffee does indeed have some health benefits when drunk in moderation and has that great coffee taste too. We can also see that, caffeine is not good for all people and some people just do not like the effects that caffeine can have on the body. This begs the question about whether the average person can tell the difference between regular and decaf coffee in terms of flavor.

Although I am not aware of any scientific tests to see whether people can actually tell the difference between decaf and regular, here is a simple little survey conducted by Huffington Post. Far from being scientific, it does, however, indicate that the majority of people can tell the difference between the two beverages when they are served as hot drinks. This changes though when served cold coffee drinks. In this example, somewhat shockingly, most people could not tell which one was decaf and which one was regular! Overall, with hot and cold drinks combined, only 2 out of the 8 taste testers could spot the decaf brew in both hold and cold categories.

The taste test above might just a bit of fun but I think it does show that the average person cannot really spot any differences between the taste of decaf and regular. For myself personally, I can always taste the difference between decaf and regular. Regular coffee has a roundness of flavor that is clearly removed during the decaf process. It is these flavor attributes that make coffee taste like coffee and the extra acidity in decaf is also very noticeable.

So Which Is Better, Decaf or Regular Coffee?

The answer to the question about which one is better is very subjective but in my own personal opinion, regular coffee in moderation wins every time. The pros of decaf coffee are.

  • If people have an intolerance to caffeine, they can still enjoy a cup of Joe.
  • Some people actually prefer the taste of decaf (crazy, isn’t it?)
  • No worries about insomnia caused by caffeine close to bedtime.

The pros of regular coffee are.

  • Tastes better overall, has great roundness of flavor.
  • In moderation, has many health benefits.
  • Can make us feel more alert and awake.
  • No nasty chemicals are involved in the processes leading to a cup of coffee.

Ultimately, it is up to the individual as to which brew they prefer, regular or decaf? Advances in the decaf process is making it harder to distinguish a difference, but coffee connoisseurs will generally easily spot the difference.