Naturally decaffeinated coffee may mean a variety of things. However, coffee producers do not necessarily have to disclose in what way the coffee was decaffeinated, even if it says naturally decaffeinated on the label. The most common methods of removing caffeine are the Swiss Water method, methyl chloride and ethyl acetate. Coffee beans which contain no caffeine were also discovered in 2004; however, these are not widely available as of 2011.
The Swiss Water process was discovered and first developed in the 1933 in Switzerland; however, the technology at the time did not allow it to be used in mass production. The process uses no chemicals to remove the caffeine. Instead it uses only fresh water. Swiss Water is a proprietary and patented process and there is only a single licensed processing plant, located in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Because of this, companies that pay to use the Swiss Water process will typically say so on the label.
Methyl chloride (DCM) decaffeination uses food grade methylene chloride to draw the caffeine out of the beans. The first phase of the process uses steam and water to open the cell structure of the coffee beans and then DCM to extract it. The beans are then steamed again to remove any residual DCM. The amount of DCM remaining on the beans is controlled by U.S. and European standards. The beans are then dried so that they can be stored and roasted.
Ethyl acetate is used for a variety of industrial purposes but naturally occurs in some fruits and vegetables. It is combined with water, pressured lightly and heated slightly to extract the caffeine from the beans. Like DCM, the beans are then steamed to remove any excess ethyl acetate and then dried so that they can be stored and roasted. Because ethyl acetate is naturally occurring this process has been deemed safe by the United States and the European Union.
In 2004 a coffee plant which naturally contains little or no caffeine was discovered by researchers in Brazil. The hope is that this plant can be crossed with already commercially popular varieties of coffee to produce beans that are decaffeinated without the need for any process to remove the caffeine. At that time researchers such as Paulo Mazzafera of the University of Campinas had high hopes for the plant, but as of 2011 it is not widely available.
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