To decaf or not to decaf?

Many of you would have started today with a nice, big cup of coffee (or tea). I know I did. It always seems to help, especially on a Monday, to wake me up and get me going. But do you know anything about caffeine, the major cause of that ‘wake-up’? No doubt many of you would have heard of decaf coffee, but we’ll get to that later.


Ahhhh, the saviour of many a Monday morning.

Above is the culprit: caffeine. Caffeine is known to be the world’s most commonly used psychoactive drug (a scary-sounding definition which simply means that it works by stimulating the central nervous system of the human body). Like alcohol, it is a drug that is legal throughout most of the world, and caffeine is recognised as being safe for human consumption because the amount that we would need to consume to make it toxic is around 10 grams, which is far more than we get in coffee or tea (although excessive energy drinks are a little different).

caffeine binding

Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors in the brain. 

Caffeine works by binding what are known as adenosine receptors, which are found in the brain. Above is a great picture which helps describe how it works when the caffeine structure binds the receptors. It causes you to feel more alert and awake, and also increases your heart rate. Because of this, caffeine has also been used to treat shortness of breath in newborn babies, and low blood pressure.

How much caffeine does the average coffee contain? The average cup of coffee is believed to contain approximately 100 milligrams of caffeine (about 1/50th of a teaspoon), but it really depends on what your brand/ size/ bean/ strength is: it could be anywhere from 40-176 mg. Caffeine is not only found in coffee, but also in tea, and how much caffeine is in tea once again depends on what type of tea, and how the leaves have been treated before being made into a teabag for your cuppa. Interestingly, it was recently found that while tea leaves and cocoa beans both contain caffeine, they evolved in different ways to produce this much-desired stimulant (see Evolution of Caffeine for more information)


It’s ALWAYS coffee time! Get it? 😉 The lab technicians here have a good sense of humour.

Now on to decaf. Some of you may have ‘that’ friend who orders the venti soy decaf orange mocha frappucino (yes, I went there… Jitterbug). Personally, I like a weak latte, but to each their own. Anywho, from the word ‘decaffeinated’, you would probably guess that the coffee doesn’t contain any caffeine, and therefore does not give you that ‘buzz’ that coffee is known for. The fact of the matter is, however, that ‘decaffeinated’ does not necessarily mean ‘no caffeine’, but rather ‘much less caffeine’. In a 2006 study (outlined in this video by Mental Floss), it was found that from ten types of ‘decaf coffee’, nine of these contained 8.6-13.9 milligrams of caffeine (a freeze-dried coffee contained none at all). This is because caffeine is actually removed by dissolving the beans or grounds in water, which takes the caffeine out of the coffee and into the water (which is then discarded). This process works pretty well, but doesn’t remove all of the caffeine. So decaf coffees don’t remove all of the buzz, but do give you a much-reduced dose.


One coffee to rule them all…

So feel free to keep drinking your coffee or tea, it’s not going to kill you. Although drowning in that load of paperwork at your desk might.