Decaf Coffee and Tea

Are these drinks really caffeine-free?

Cup of coffee on a table of wood.
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Whether for medical reasons, getting the jitters, or to avoid being up all night, some of us choose to drink decaffeinated coffee or tea instead of regular. But, when it comes to drinking decaf beverages, are we still putting some caffeine into our systems? The answer depends on what you are drinking exactly. First, let's look at what "decaf" really means.

The Definition of Decaf

Coffee and tea is naturally caffeinated—an eight-ounce cup of coffee contains 80 to 135 milligrams of caffeine; the same amount of black tea has 40 to 60 milligrams, while green tea has just 15 milligrams.

There is no such thing as coffee or tea that is without caffeine in its original state—which is why these beverages become decaffeinated.

"Decaf" is short for "decaffeinated" or "decaffeination." Contrary to popular belief, decaf is not the same as "caffeine-free." Caffeine-free means the product is completely void of caffeine—never had it, never will. However, decaf means the natural caffeine in the beverage has been removed through a process during production.

Caffeine in Decaf Drinks

Although there is this process of caffeine removal, most decaf coffees and teas still contain trace amounts caffeine—maybe one to two percent. And due to the lack of enforcement of decaf health claims, some decaf drinks may contain moderate—or even more—amounts of caffeine.

When it comes to coffee, you really don't have a pure caffeine-free option (there is actually a naturally caffeine-free coffee out there, but it's very rare).

Tea, however, is available in a few different forms—herbal infusions—that make it easier to find a tea void of any caffeine.

Caffeine in Tea

While many herbal infusions (also called tisanes) are naturally caffeine-free, decaf teas are teas that naturally contain caffeine but have had most of the caffeine removed.

Therefore, if you are looking for a truly caffeine-free tea, do not choose a decaf black tea, for example—it will have traces of caffeine in it. Instead, select an herbal tea, which is made from plant material (vs. the leaves of the Camellia sinesis plant, which is what tea is made of) and is not actually a tea at all. An added bonus is that many herbal teas offer health benefits, such as aiding in digestion or providing vitamins and antioxidants. 

The Effects of Traces of Caffeine

One or two percent of caffeine may not seem like much, but over the course of the day—depending on how much you drink, of course—these small amounts will add up. So, if you are sensitive to caffeine, you probably don't want to have several cups in the morning, followed by an afternoon mug, topped off with a decaf tea before bed.