Is it Safe to Drink Decaf Coffee While Pregnant?

I am sure most people have heard the horror stories regarding caffeine during pregnancy. The consumption of large quantities of caffeine has been rumored to lower birth weights, increase possible defects, and affect the overall development of the fetus. It is for this reason that many mothers have turned to decaf during pregnancy as a way of maintaining their coffee drinking rituals without suffering the initial withdrawals of cutting out caffeine. The problem is that this switch may be more harmful than good.

How is Decaf Made?

There are different ways of decaffeinating coffee. All of them start with green, unroasted beans and water.

The beans are soaked in the water which extracts the caffeine and most of the oils necessary for flavor into the water. From there a solvent of some sort is used to bind with the caffeine. When the solvent binds with caffeine it can be removed from the water. The beans are then placed back into the decaffeinated water where they soak up as much of the oils and flavors as possible.

There are a few different solvents that are used for this process. These chemicals are what is important when looking at whether or not decaffeinated coffee is safer than regular coffee.

The Roselius Process

The original method for decaffeinating coffee was invented by a German coffee merchant named Ludwig Roselius.

Roselius believed that caffeine was to blame for poisoning his father and set out to find a way to remove the caffeine from coffee. His original procedure included using a salt water brine to soak the beans in.

After the beans soaked and the caffeine was left over in the water, he used Benzene as a solvent for the caffeine.

It was later discovered that Benzene is a human carcinogen. This is where the problem with decaffeinated coffee still lies. Although this process is now illegal, the chemical chosen to adhere to the caffeine is still crucial to the health of the consumer.

Modern Methods for Decaffeination

The other two solvents commonly used for decaffeination include methylene chloride and ethyl acetate.

Methylene chloride is approved by the FDA. Formaldehyde is a byproduct of methylene chloride which is why so many people are skeptical about pregnant women drinking it. Since this chemical vaporizes at 104 degrees Fahrenheit and the typical roasting process will heat the beans to 400 degrees, it is highly unlikely the chemical remains in the beans after being roasted.

With that said, there is little research done on how those minute remaining traces could affect a developing embryo.

The other solvent, ethyl acetate, is a solvent referred to as being more ‘natural’ than others. Ethyl acetate occurs naturally and is what gives many fruits their sweet aroma and taste. The problem is that this solvent is expensive to extract and most companies will use ethyl alcohol instead. Even though ethyl alcohol is synthetic the package will still read ‘all natural.’ This is a problem because ethyl alcohol can be derived in a healthy manner or from petroleum products. It is the same solvent used in nail polish remover, paint, and printer inks.

The Swiss Water Process

The Swiss Water Process was invented in 1933 as a form of decaffeination. Unlike other ways of making decaf, it does not use chemicals as a solvent. This makes the Swiss Water Process the safest indirect method of decaffeination.

The green coffee beans are still soaked in water to extract all of the caffeine and oils. Instead of using a chemical to bind and separate the caffeine from the other oils, the Swiss Water Process passes the water through a proprietary carbon filtering system.

The shape of the carbon pores only allow caffeine to pass through the filter.

This process takes 8-9 hours and leaves the remaining water mixture 99.9% caffeine free. Of all the methods for decaffeinating coffee, this is one of the safest forms.

There is Another Method: Direct Decaffeination

The three methods above are all indirect methods of decaffeination. The solvents never actually make contact with the beans.

Often a lot of the flavor is lost during these indirect processes.

A direct method of caffeine extraction starts like the rest: soaking green coffee beans in water. The beans are then placed in a stainless steel extraction vessel.

Liquid CO2 is introduced to the beans and 1000 pounds of pressure per inch is applied! The immense amount of pressure forces the CO2 into the beans which ends up extracting all of the caffeine while leaving the flavor inside of the bean.

This method keeps the integrity of the taste intact while completely decaffeinating the coffee beans.

Wait, Decaf is Linked to Increased Miscarriage

It is true, although they are still uncertain why, the State Department of Health has discovered women who drink three or more cups of decaffeinated coffee per day in the first trimester are 2.4 times more likely to have a miscarriage.

With that said, they think that it may be because women who have nonviable pregnancies sometimes increase their decaf intake. It is theorized that during the first trimester if women stop experiencing morning sickness they will increase their coffee drinking because they feel better. However, not experiencing nausea suddenly is a red flag for a miscarriage.

“Among the heavy decaffeinated coffee drinkers (three or more cups daily), the spontaneous abortion rate was 18.5% for the 27 women who had increased their consumption, 33.3% for the six women who had reduced to three cups per day, and 24% for the 25 women who had not changed their consumption since before pregnancy, reported lead author Laura Fenster of the Department of Health Services in Emeryville, California. The overall miscarriage rate for the women in the study was 9.7%” (Andy Evangelista, par. 8).

In a study of 5,144 pregnant women, the State Department of Health found that women who drank coffee had no increased risk miscarriage or defects. Although they recommend keeping coffee intake to the equivalent of 10 oz. The study indicated that drinking three or more cups of coffee increased the chances of complications by up to 1.3 times which is still much better than the statistics on decaf.

For more information on this case study click here.

The Overall Health Benefits of Decaffeinated Coffee

Decaffeinated coffee still contains trace amounts of caffeine. Despite being processed, decaf still maintains a lot of the health benefits of regular coffee.

Studies have shown that a cup of decaf per day can help our brains metabolize energy.

Decaf is rich in antioxidants and nutrients. It has been linked to staving off diabetes II, liver disease, strokes, and heart disease.

For more information on the health benefits of decaf, click here.

So, is Decaf Good or Bad Then?

The truth is more research needs to be done on the subject.

Studies show that pregnant consumers of decaf have a 2.4 times higher chance of experiencing a miscarriage, but there is the possibility this could be a coincidence.

Coffee, however, is completely fine in small doses, but should be limited to ten ounces a day. The chance of complications increases by 1.3 times when three or more cups are consumed.

All-in-all, like most things in life, the key is moderation.

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

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