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  • Writer's pictureBeth Kitchin PhD RDN

Cancer in Your Cup of Decaf?



Does decaf coffee cause cancer? Several health headlines this week asked that very question. One over-the-top headline read: “Decaf Coffee Contains a Horrifying Poison, Experts Say”. But don’t panic before you get the details.

 

Here’s the scoop:

  • Methylene chloride is a colorless liquid that’s used in certain industrial processes, like paint stripping. It’s also used as a solvent to remove caffeine from coffee.

  • Methylene chloride is a known carcinogen (cause of cancer). Just how much exposure from foods is too much is unknown.

  • The EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency) banned its sale as a paint stripper in 2019 and proposed a ban of all commercial uses in 2023.

  • But the EPA does not regulate food – the FDA does that.

  • While the FDA has not yet banned methylene chloride, it has regulated how much is allowed in foods. It allows for the use of methylene chloride as a solvent to decaffeinate coffee, stating that “the residues of methylene chloride must not exceed 10 parts per million (0.001%) in decaffeinated roasted coffee and in decaffeinated soluble coffee extract (instant coffee).” In amounts this small, it should not be dangerous. But there are other safer methods companies could use to remove the caffeine.

  • The state assembly in California has introduced a bill to ban the use of methylene chloride in the decaffeination process.

  • The FDA is said to be considering proposing a ban – but what to do until then?

 

Despite the FDA’s limitations on how much of the residue is allowed in decaf, if you’re like me, you don’t want any (I mix decaf with caf). Luckily, using methylene chloride as a solvent is just one method of removing caffeine from coffee. There are other methods that are water-based. Some coffee brands use these safer methods to decaffeinate their coffees. But here’s the thing, they may use different methods for different coffee blends.

 

Luckily, a group called the Clean Label Project (cleanlabelproject.org) has two lists of popular decaf coffee blends showing which had detectable levels of methylene chloride and which did not. Here’s a direct link: Decaf Coffee Safety. If your coffee is on the undetectable list, that’s great. But it doesn’t mean they don’t use the methylene chloride method. You can use this drop-down menu on their site to find details on what method your brand and blend of decaf uses: checkyourdecaf.org. I was happy to find my decaf Starbucks Verona blend on the “Not Detected” list but when I checked which method they use and it was the methylene chloride method. However, the amount left in the coffee after processing was too low to detect.  

 

So, until next time, drink and enjoy your coffee safely.

 

Beth Kitchin PhD RDN

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