Coffee is a beloved drink that most adults enjoy. In fact, a 2010 report found that over 50% of American adults drink about 3 cups of coffee a day. According to the International Coffee Organization, areas of the world like China, India and Latin America are also drinking more coffee.
With the increase in coffee consumption, should you drink regular coffee or decaf?
Are there health benefits to drinking coffee and what are the risks? There are more studies that have shown positive health effects from regular coffee, but there are health benefits associated with decaf coffee as well.
What is the difference in caffeine between regular and decaf?
In order for coffee to be decaffeinated, 97% of the caffeine must be removed. Most cups of decaf coffee have about 5 milligrams of caffeine, but the amount of caffeine can vary because different coffee beans have different caffeine levels (1).
A regular cup of coffee can have between 140-300 milligrams of caffeine.
The caffeine is removed from the green coffee beans before they are roasted which can affect the roasting process and how long the coffee stays fresh.
Are there different health benefits from regular versus decaf coffee?
Harvard Health (2) compared the research from drinking decaf compared to drinking regular coffee.
When comparing decaf coffee to regular coffee, some research found drinking decaf coffee may increase blood lipids which may increase risk for heart disease while regular coffee did not.
Both decaf and regular coffee have been shown to protect against type 2 diabetes, although decaf to a lesser extent than regular coffee.
Both decaf and regular coffee have been shown to lower risk factor for type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance.
According to professor at Indiana University School of Medicine Aaron Carroll (3), there aren’t many studies looking at decaf coffee consumption and the effect on health. There is less evidence over all for a beneficial affect from drinking decaf coffee, but there appears to be slight or no risk for harm for drinking decaf coffee.
Drinking coffee has been associated with protecting the liver, but a 2014 study (4) also found drinking decaf coffee is beneficial for liver health.
The study found participants had lower levels of liver enzymes when they drank decaf or regular coffee. This suggests there is something in the coffee, besides the caffeine, that is responsible for protecting liver from damage.
How much coffee do you need to drink for a benefit? This study compared the effect of drinking 3 cups of coffee per day, whether regular or decaf, compared to not drinking any coffee at all.
Researchers suggest more research is needed to determine what exactly in the coffee may offer benefit to liver function.
A 2005 study covered by BBC News (5) concluded drinking decaf coffee, but not regular coffee, increased fatty acid levels in the blood. These fatty acids form the harmful LDL cholesterol, so researchers concluded drinking decaf coffee may increase risk for heart disease.
Research participants drank 3-6 cups per day of either regular or decaf coffee, and there was a control group who drank no coffee.
Researchers measured blood cholesterol after the study and only found a difference in the decaf drinking group in fatty acid levels.
What is the effect when you drink less than 3-6 cups per day of decaf coffee on heart health? Researchers suggest risk is probably low.
There are 2 other substances in coffee beans that can increase cholesterol levels. However, using a paper filter traps these compounds from entering the coffee.
However, drinking coffee drinks, like lattes, that don’t use paper filters could mean these compounds are still in the coffee (6).
When drinking decaf may be the better choice
Some people are sensitive to caffeine and may benefit from drinking decaf coffee due to the lower caffeine content.
Caffeine can make some people feel jittery and may interfere with sleep if taken after a certain time. Drinking caffeine may be contraindicated for certain medications or health conditions.
If you are sensitive to caffeine, check which brands of coffee are lowest in caffeine. Just because a coffee is marked decaf still means the caffeine content can vary.
Also, keep in mind the nutritional value of a coffee drink, whether decaf or regular, can drastically change depending on what other additives you put in like sweeteners or creamers.
If you are just drinking decaf because you think it’s healthier than regular coffee, evidence from research does not currently support this.
In fact, if anything, research studies suggest drinking regular coffee have some health benefits.
One study found drinking decaf coffee may increase fatty acid levels in blood when drinking 3-6 cups per day.
The good news is both regular and decaf coffee may have a protective role on liver health.
Most health professionals suggest drinking coffee between 2-4 cups per day at most, but everyone is different (7). Listen to your body.