Once considered a vice that was probably terrible for us, coffee is now thought to be—blessedly—a bit of a superfood. According to research, as long as you steer clear of the sugary lattes and mochas (sugar pretty much always cancels out any health benefits), regular coffee consumption is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. It also may lower depression risk and lead to a longer life.
Since many of us are regularly jonesing for a morning caffeine fix, the health perks of coffee are a nice added benefit. But for some people, caffeine is anxiety-inducing, some avoid it due to specific health conditions, and others just don’t like it very much. For those who like the taste of coffee but don’t want the caffeine, decaf can be a solid alternative. But are you still getting the health benefits of coffee when you drink decaf? Let’s take a closer look.
It's not just about caffeine.
Good news, decaf drinkers: The benefits of coffee have less to do with caffeine and more to do with the beneficial compounds the beans contain. “Coffee is not only a vehicle for caffeine. It includes hundreds of compounds that may be active in the body including antioxidant polyphenols and some vitamins and minerals,” says Rob van Dam, an adjunct associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard University. “Similar to caffeinated coffee, decaffeinated coffee consumption has been linked with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and endometrial cancer as well as a slightly lower risk of cardiovascular mortality. Although this evidence is not conclusive, overall it seems decaffeinated coffee is a prudent beverage choice.”
Although decaf coffee does contain a small amount of caffeine because removing it entirely isn’t possible, it’s important to note that unless you’re really sensitive to it, you won’t likely experience the same energy boost you get from caffeinated coffee. While it’s unclear exactly where the improved mood and lowered depression risk come in, these perks may be related to caffeine more than coffee—anyone who’s ever felt just a little more optimistic after a caffeine fix knows the feeling.
What about other coffee alternatives?
In deciding whether or not to drink decaf coffee, it’s worth taking into consideration that decaf coffee beans are more processed than caffeinated ones. Because caffeine naturally occurs in coffee beans, in the early 20th century, stripping beans of their caffeine once involved a harmful chemical process. These days, though, the process is much gentler. “Modern methods use solvents that appear to be safe,” says van Dam. “There’s also a method called the Swiss Water Process that only uses water and a charcoal filter.”
For those who still don’t love the idea of solvents (it’s typically hard to find mass-produced decaf coffee that uses the Swiss Water Process), there are plenty of other morning beverage alternatives, such as herbal tea or mushroom or reishi coffee. But according to van Dam, there’s no solid evidence to suggest that you should reach for one of these drinks over a cup of decaf in the name of your health—especially if these coffee alternatives happen to be packed with sugar. “Research findings suggest that caffeine intake over the long term may reduce risk of specific diseases such as liver cancer and Parkinson's Disease,” he explains. “Some people do experience adverse effects of caffeine, like nervousness or difficulty falling asleep. But when choosing between decaf or other beverages, there is no evidence that mushroom coffee or herbal tea would be healthier than decaffeinated coffee.”
Long story short, if you like the taste of coffee, you’re in luck. It seems that many of the health benefits of caffeinated coffee translate to decaf as well, minus the energy boost. So drink up.
Poole R, Kennedy OJ, Roderick P, Fallowfield JA, Hayes PC, Parkes J. Coffee consumption and health: umbrella review of meta-analyses of multiple health outcomes. BMJ. 2017;359:j5024. doi:10.1136/bmj.j5024