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Where Does the
Caffeine Go?
By Serena Norr

Decaf coffee is just one of the growing segments in the coffee market. The extraction of coffee is an intricate process where the removed caffeine is converted into items that we enjoy in our everyday lives - sodas, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products.

Caffeine is a natural stimulant that is found in numerous plant species whose purpose is to act as a natural pesticide to ward off predatory insects. As far as consumption is concerned, caffeine has many sources that are found in chocolate, pharmaceutical products, tea and, of course, coffee. According to the Coffee Research Institute located in Long Beach, California, “In the U.S., almost 90% of Americans consume caffeine daily. Many consumers enjoy the taste of coffee but do not want the caffeine due to a variety of reasons often attributed to health and wellness reasons.” Decaf coffee offers consumers such an alternative. According to coffee broker and author, Tim Castle, “The demand for decaf in North America will increase over the coming years as our population ages. Since exclusive decaf drinkers (those who drink most of the decaf consumed) generally choose decaf for health reasons, they want to know that their decaf choice is a healthy one and one that is also decaffeinated within established guidelines. Further, decaf drinkers will demand an increasingly better cup of decaf as the general level of coffee quality improves in restaurants, coffee houses and in what whole bean is available in grocery stores and through the internet.”

The aim of decaffeination is to produce a blend, which retains its aroma and taste despite the processes, which are necessary to remove the caffeine. Since most flavor components develop during roasting, coffee is almost always decaffeinated in the green bean form. According to the Coffee Research Institute, “The levels of caffeine are controlled by the federal government in decaffeinated coffees, and in order for a coffee to be called ‘Decaf,’ green coffee beans must have undergone one of several decaffeinating processes to remove 97% of the caffeine resident in the bean.”

According to the Certified Processing Corporation located in New Jersey, “All methods of decaffeination basically involve soaking green coffee in a liquid tank to expel the caffeine. Some processes require an effort to re-inject lost flavor back into the beans. Then they are washed numerous times, dried and bagged. After decaffeination we have always wondered what happens to the caffeine. There are many decaffeinating processes, some using chemicals solvents, some gasses and some only steam or water.”

The decaffeination process involves removing caffeine from coffee beans, mate, cocoa, tea leaves and other materials containing caffeine. (While caffeine-free soft drinks are occasionally referred to as ‘decaffeinated,’ some are actually prepared by simply omitting caffeine from production.) With all the consumption of decaffeinated beverages, it is interesting to wonder where the caffeine goes after extraction.

Most decaf coffees are made using a chemical process first employed in Europe. This process involves soaking the beans in water and then “washing” them in methylene chloride to absorb the caffeine from the bean. After this, the beans are rinsed clean of the chemicals, dried and shipped to the coffee roasters. Italian decaf processor Demus Spa states, “According to many experts and thanks to its high solvent capacities, this system is considered the best of all, and allows the organoleptic properties of coffee to remain intact.” “The coffee processed through the ‘Demus procedure,’ besides being decaffeinated, is cleaned, and most waxes are removed (it is also possible to certify the coffee as ‘wax free’ at request and with an additional cost),” as stated on Demus’ website. The advantage of this method is that it provides decaf coffee with more flavor than the other processes. Although there is virtually no trace of any chemicals left in the bean after roasting, some people are uncomfortable knowing that the coffee they are drinking was chemically processed.

According to The Coffee Institute, “Another, more expensive, way of extracting caffeine is by steeping it in supercritical carbon dioxide. This requires exposing the beans to the hellish conditions required to make CO2 go supercritical, 300 atmospheres of pressure and 70°C. CO2 under these conditions has the density of a liquid but the viscosity (rather, the lack of viscosity) of a gas, so it can integrate itself pretty deeply into the beans. It’s then drawn off and filtered to be used again, and the beans are allowed to dry, removing any remaining (non-toxic) carbon dioxide.”

Another method utilizes natural components. Maximus Coffee Group located in Houston, Texas utilizes a sparkling water process. According to Carlos deAldecoa Bueno, president of Maximus Coffee, “We operate the second largest decaffeination plant in the world, which is all natural and uses no chemicals. This extraction is achieved using only ultra-pure water and supercritical carbon dioxide. Our facility is green certified by the EPA and does not use chemicals, which results in a chemical free product.” According to Maximus Coffee, “This process involves placing green coffee through a set of cleaners to remove the silver skin and dust from the coffee. The beans are then moisturized using steam and ultra-pure water. After the moisturizing step, the beans are transferred to an extraction vessel, where the beans make contact with natural carbon dioxide and ultra-pure water to remove the caffeine. At over 3500 psig, the fluid moves through the bed of wet beans, removing only the caffeine from the coffee. After a preset amount of extraction time, the beans are discharged from the extraction vessel to the dryers, where they are gently dried and then cooled. The caffeine-laden CO2/ultra-pure water mixture is then sent to a depressurizing chamber where by reducing the pressure the caffeine drops out of the mixture. The CO2 is recovered and reused in the process. Caffeine is recovered by concentrating the ultra-pure water containing the caffeine and the vapor is condensed and sent through a reverse osmosis (RO) membrane filtration to be reused in the process. The result is naturally decaffeinated coffee boasting full, natural flavor and aroma with no lingering residue from chemical solvents.”

Swiss water processing uses no chemicals, but rather hot water and steam to remove the caffeine from the coffee. The bean is taken into the water and then the water solution put through activated charcoal filters to remove the caffeine. According to Swiss Water’s website, “The now caffeine-free water flows back to the beans to remove more caffeine.” Once the caffeine is removed, these same beans are then put back into the decaffeinated solution to re-absorb to the process to start the next batch of beans. “This process continues for approximately eight hours, until the beans are 99.9% caffeine-free,” stated Swiss Water’s website.

Extraction of Coffee
The decaffeination processes involves treating the green coffee beans with a solvent, then removing the caffeine-laden solvent from the beans. The three main methods of decaffeination in commercial use today are: chemical solvents, supercritical gases or water and caffeine-free extracts.

According to Carlos deAldecoa Bueno, “the caffeine is recovered using evaporation and crystallization. There are no waste streams out of the process.”

Our decaffeination process is the most selective and fastest extraction process; this allows us to produce coffee which most closely resembles the original green coffee and we do not remove any of the flavor or color components from the coffee.”

According to Demus, “Nearly all the solvent is recuperated and can be used again. This stage is carried out with great care for financial reasons (all products used are very expensive so waste is kept to a minimum), for legal reasons (there are laws which set maximum limits on solvent residue in coffee) and for ecological reasons, since decaffeination companies have to be very sensitive regarding this issue.”

According to the Coffee Research Institute, “The chemical composition of decaffeinated coffee is altered, and therefore the flavor and aroma are changed. After the decaffeination process, processing companies no longer throw the caffeine away. Some of American’s favorite diet products that contain caffeine come from decaffeination plants. There are several options for caffeine that often involves selling the remains to other companies for additional usage. Certified Processing Corp. revealed, “We sell caffeine to pharmaceutical companies who use it in a number of different products.” The DeCaf Company added, “The caffeine which is removed from the solvent by distillation has many commercial applications, for example in pharmaceuticals and as a flavoring agent. Traces of solvent still adhering to the beans are forced out by further steaming and the coffee is then dried.” Caffeine is also sold to soft drink companies where it is extracted into sodas and energy drinks.

Retaining Flavor
Caffeine extraction is expensive, and some of coffee’s more fragile flavor ingredients are always lost or changed in the extraction process. Recent advances in biotechnology may make caffeine extraction obsolete. The DeCaf Company, located in San Francisco, California utilizes a method for coffee without giving up flavor by employing technology that can be used to extract caffeine from coffee, tea or sodas. According to chief executive Mel Stuckey, “The company has come up with a wand-like instrument that bears a resemblance to a tongue depressor and lets the holder literally ‘stir’ the caffeine out of a drink, which is reported to extract about 70% of the caffeine according to the company’s research. Caffeine-hungry polymers coat the stick, grabbing and pulling the hyped-up molecules out of the drink.” According to Carlos deAldecoa Bueno, “caffeine is naturally bitter in taste, decaffeinated coffees will be milder in taste due to the removal of this bitter note.”

Depending on whom you ask, companies are adamant about their extraction method in retaining flavor. The true judge comes from the roaster that knows what best works for the blend of the coffee. According to Java Jacks located in Texas, “Our blends are decaffeinated through a natural water process that offers the highest possible flavor retention available to decaf beans.” According to Demus, “The methylene process offers the best flavor retention but it is also the most understood.” Volcanic Red, a coffee company based in Arizona stated, “The majority of our decafs we sell are the methylene chloride, since they produce the best tasting decaffeinated coffees (with zero residual solvent particles).”

Caffeinated Products
Once the caffeine is extracted companies sell its properties for various usages. According to Carlos deAldecoa Bueno, “The caffeine is recovered using evaporation and crystallization. There are no waste streams out of the process. We sell our caffeine to the beverage industry as an all natural and naturally extracted caffeine.” Diet pills and cosmetic companies are the largest consumers of caffeine. The recent trend in caffeine-enhanced cosmetics has been getting international recognition, with everyone from morning news shows to large beauty magazines investigating the effects of the additive. Beauty companies use caffeine that has properties believed to do everything from reduce cellulite to enhance lips, but the three main ways caffeine is said to work on the skin is: as a vasoconstrictor, an antioxidant and a diuretic. Because of this, caffeine can be found in body wash, soap, lip balm, facial scrubs and several other products such as caffeine lipstick. Caffeine is also found in sprays and facial toners, de-puffing eye creams and gels and in hundreds of face and body creams, which claim to give bodies a lift, or improve our contours. The French cosmetic company, Clarins, uses caffeine in some of its products, which claims to stimulate the release of fatty deposits in fat cells. The Italian company Inverni Della Beffa, a drug company that uses caffeine for drugs and cosmetics, similarly proposes extracts of Kola seeds, which contains caffeine used for their astringent, aromatizing and lipase-activating properties. Recent testing on animals has shown that caffeine even protects against sun damage when applied directly to the skin.

Caffeine is a necessary and beneficial element for our lives. According to trade sources, there is not enough caffeine to meet the beverage and cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries and therefore is made artificially to meet the demand. While caffeine may have had a bad reputation in the past, today’s fast-paced, on-the-go society is relying on the chemical for their morning pick-me-ups, miracle eye creams and cola fixes.

Serena Norr is a freelance writer based in New York. As a former editor at Tea and Coffee Trade Journal she enjoys writing about the industry.


Tea & Coffee - July, 2008
Tea Fair - China


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