What happens if you take the caffeine out of coffee?
Sabeen Abbas which shows a mild-mannered office "Caffeine itself is a non-addictive
worker turning into a psychotic beast psychoactive alkaloid that is a compo-
after drinking too much coffee. nent in a beverage, coffee and tea, that
Worldwide, 1.6 billion cups of coffee Yet the physiological effects of caf- has been with us a long time," he says.
are drunk every day (or about 18,519 feine are only one of the reasons for "Now praised for its health prop-
cups a second). Judging by the density its popularity. Coffee is also a social erties (coffee and tea being loaded
of cafés and the frequent references drink that facilitates conversations. with antioxidants), caffeine is often
in pop culture – Star Trek Voyager But what happens if you take the caf- overlooked as an incidental and toler-
describes coffee as “the finest organic feine out of coffee? able addition to a drink that is enjoyed
suspension ever devised” – we live To find out more about the rela- by almost half the population of the
in a coffee-obsessed culture. French tionship between coffee, caffeine and planet Earth.”
musicians Oldelaf et Monseiur D joke culture, I chatted with Colin Newell, According to the U.S. Food and
about the dangers of too much caf- the creator of coffeecrew.com, about Drug Administration, the average 150
feine in their music video for Le Café, his passion – coffee. mL (5-ounce) cup of coffee has 115 mg
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION Carmelo Galati Volume 8 spezzatino.com 45
of caffeine. The amount of caffeine de- for both caffeinated and decaffeinated
pends on the origin of the coffee bean, coffee. This suggests that there's some-
the brewing method and strength of thing other than caffeine in coffee,
brew. The average person consumes which might protect against diabetes.”
less than 300 mg of caffeine per day. The majority of scientific and
As other articles in this issue epidemiological studies suggest that
describe, caffeine works by stimulat- regular, moderate caffeine consump-
ing the central nervous system. The tion has no adverse effects. People
physiological effects depend on several with irregular heartbeat syndromes
factors. For example, caffeine stays in may choose to drink decaf since
a pregnant woman’s body three times caffeine has been known to cause
longer than average for adults. Caffeine arrhythmias. Alcohol, exercise, stress
leaves smoker’s bodies twice as quickly and many drugs also can cause an ir-
as non-smokers. Age also increases regular heart beat.
sensitivity to caffeine. Regular coffee I asked Dr. El-Sohemy what made
drinkers may become habituated to him interested in studying coffee.
caffeine’s effects and be able to handle “I was intrigued by why some people
greater amounts of caffeine. need to consume plenty of coffee to
Decaffeination Decaffeinated coffee has most of get the stimulating effects of caffeine,"
requires a solvent the caffeine removed through a decaf- he says, "whereas other people get the
to extract the feination process. By North American same effects after consuming only a
caffeine. Early regulations, the final caffeine content small amount. It appeared that genetics
decaffeination must be less than 0.1% or about 3 mg. may play an important role. We con-
used benzene. Decaf coffee is a substitute for ducted a study that aimed to identify
people who want to avoid the stimu- specific genes that could explain why
lating effects of caffeine for health individuals differ in their sensitivity to
or other reasons, while enjoying the caffeine and how that might influence
taste, aroma and social atmosphere the amount of caffeine they consume
associated with coffee drinking. from coffee and other sources. We were
Is decaffeinated coffee healthier? Ac- also interested in knowing whether
cording to Ahmed El-Sohemy, Associate genetic differences that affect how
Professor and Canada Research Chair quickly the body degrades caffeine
in Nutrigenomics at the University of might influence a person's risk of cer-
Toronto, it's hard to know exactly. tain chronic diseases if they regularly
“One of the challenges for observa- consume coffee or other caffeinated
tional studies comparing caffeinated beverages.” (For more on El-Sohemy's
coffee drinkers to decaffeinated coffee research, see "Coded for Caffeine", else-
drinkers," he says, "is that those who where in this issue. –Ed.)
choose to consume decaf are usually El-Sohemy's research suggests that
very different in many respects from some people should switch to decaf. But
regular coffee drinkers. how is decaf made? Do we lose impor-
"Because many aspects of their diet tant coffee compounds along the way?
and lifestyle differ, it's not always clear The decaffeination process is
if any differences observed between performed on green coffee beans. The
these groups is because of the caffeine. process depends on the equilibrium
Regardless, there is growing evidence principle of concentration gradients:
that coffee might protect against type that substances (such as caffeine) will
2 diabetes and this effect seems to exist move from an area of high concentra-
46 spezzatino.com Volume 8
tion (i.e., in the coffee bean) to an area decaffeination process. The steps are
of low concentration (such as a solvent repeated until the caffeine content is
in which the bean is soaking). low enough – usually around 0.02 to
Decaffeination requires a solvent 0.3% of the original.
to extract the caffeine. Early decaffein- Many coffee devotees argue that de-
ation used benzene. Now manufactur- caffeination changes the taste of coffee.
ers use other types of organic solvents: Chemically, it seems they're right.
ethyl acetate, liquid CO2, methylene Decaffeination may eliminate an
chloride (aka dichloromethane). Ethyl important group of flavour chemicals:
acetate is often described on package chlorogenic acids (CGAs) and their
labels as "naturally decaffeinated" be- related phenolic compounds. Phenolic
cause ethyl acetate occurs naturally in compounds are produced by plants
fruits. (Incidentally, ethyl acetate can adapting to conditions of environ-
also contribute to wine flavours.)
Water is also used, such as in the
Swiss Water process. Though "Swiss
Water" conjures up images of apple-
cheeked milkmaids and Alpine glaciers,
it's not actually water from Switzerland,
"People who consume
decaf are usually very
but a water-based process that origi-
nated in Switzerland in the 1930s and
is now the brand name of a company
located in British Columbia, Canada.
different in many
Here's how the process works.
1. The green coffee beans are soaked
in water. This releases the caffeine
respects from regular
from the beans. Green beans may
also be soaked in the solvent itself.
2. The caffeine is extracted from the
beans using a solvent. The concen-
tration difference between the solu-
tion the beans are in and the solvent mental stress, such as extreme tem-
solution causes the caffeine to dif- peratures or plant predators (such as
fuse out of the cell. This continues pathogens or insects).
until an equilibrium is reached. Phenols are very chemically active.
3. The beans are resoaked in the Many have strong smells and flavours,
decaffeinated solution in order to such as guaiacol, which is present
reabsorb the flavour compounds. in smoke and adds a smokey flavour
4. The beans are steamed to remove to roasted coffee as well as whiskey.
traces of the solvent (if it's a solvent Other phenols may act pharmacologi-
other than water). cally in our bodies, often preventing
5. The coffee beans are dried to their disease or affecting our hormones.
normal moisture level. Because CGAs are water-soluble,
6. The beans are then roasted as they're particularly likely to disappear
normal. when water is used as a solvent. They
Temperature, pressure and time are make up about 4 to 14% of the dry
carefully controlled as part of the matter of coffee.
Volume 8 spezzatino.com 47
CGAs help develop coffee's taste recommends the Swiss Water decaf pro-
when roasted. The Maillard and St- cess as the best decaffeination process.
recker reactions, which are the same For many people, the caffeine
reactions that help create caramel as content is a nice benefit of coffee, but
heated sugar browns, or the "grilled" there are many other reasons to drink
flavour of a browned steak, also coffee – not least of which is the "cof-
contribute to coffee's "roasty" flavour. fee ritual" or "coffee environment".
When coffee is roasted, these CGAs In our culture, social coffee drink-
and lactones, their byproducts, are re- ing tends to occur in certain spaces.
leased and chemically converted. This According to Newell, Starbucks CEO
creates coffee's complex flavours. Howard Schaltz argues that one of the
CGAs may also contribute to cof- reasons Starbucks has succeeded is
fee's health benefits. For example, they because Starbucks has become a place
may act as antioxidants, which might to go where people don’t face the pres-
decrease our risk of many chronic dis- sures of home and office.
eases. Some CGAs, such as cinnamoyl- As Newell reminisces, “I remember
1,5-γ-quinolactones, have been shown two things quite well; my first cup of
to improve blood sugar. Cinnamoyl- coffee as a young adult where I real-
1,5-γ-quinolactones, which are created ized that this beverage had definitely
from CGA during the roasting process, become part of the fabric of my social
are the primary CGA lactones in regu- experience... and the last cup of coffee
lar (i.e. non-decaffeinated) roasted cof- I had – generally within the last 6 to
For many people, fee. Research also suggests that these 12 hours. I generally enjoy one really
the caffeine content CGAs may need caffeine to "activate". great mug of coffee a day – and it is
is a nice benefit of Thus, when we lose CGAs (and, always accompanied by social interac-
coffee, but there possibly, the caffeine that "unlocks" tion and voluble discourse.”
are many other their activity), we significantly change Luckily, it seems that some of the
reasons to drink the original bean's chemical profile. great things about coffee can't be dis-
coffee – not least of This may mean we lose both flavour solved away.
which is the "coffee and healing power.
ritual" or "coffee Good decaf should be virtually un-
environment". detectable from regular coffee. Newell
Farah, Adriana and Carmen Marino Coffee Research.org
Donangelo. Phenolic Compounds in COSIC Coffee Science Information
Coffee." Brazilian Journal of Physiology Centre cosic.org
18, no.1 (2006): 23-36. Everyday Gourmet coffee shop
Farah, Adriana, et al. "Chlorogenic Acids International Coffee Organization
and Lactones in Regular and Water- Positively Coffee.org
Decaffeinated Arabica Coffees." Journal
of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 54 Ahmed El-Sohemy's website:
(2006): 374-381. www.utoronto.ca/nutrisci/faculty/El-
Flament, Ivon. Coffee Flavor Chemistry. Sohemy
New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.; 2002.
48 spezzatino.com Volume 8 ILLUSTRATION: "Caffeine Addict", Randy Steward