Is Decaf Tea as Healthy as Caffeinated Tea?
By Blog August 4th, 2018
Health benefits of decaf tea
One of the reasons tea is becoming so popular these days is because it's been touted for its incredible health benefits. From the aging to joint health and focus to mood; odds are if you have it, tea can help with it. These effects are nothing new, people have been drinking tea for precisely this reason for centuries, but in the modern era we're finding out that these benefits are largely due to its antioxidants.
Along with figuring out why tea benefits our bodies in the way that it does, science has also found ways to get around what many have just accepted as part of the package; the caffeine. Whether you want to drink tea before bed or you're sensitive to caffeine, there is a decaf tea out there that can satisfy your cravings without giving you that unwanted jolt of energy that comes along with it.
But seeing as normal tea doesn't appear in nature without caffeine, something fairly extensive has to happen to it in order to remove it. With that premise comes a well founded question; Does the process of decaffeinating tea affect it's health benefits?
Antioxidants in Decaf Tea
In order to get to the bottom of what decaffeination does to your tea, you should first understand why tea is good for you in the first place. Most of the benefits you get from drinking tea comes from the antioxidants you receive from it. The principle function of these antioxidants are to give the free radicals that are produced by your body's metabolism a place to safely offload the electrical charge they get through allowing your cells to produce energy. Without something to offload this charge onto, these free radicals instead attack your body and DNA in an attempt to get back to a stable state. Without antioxidizing compounds, your body ends up taking the hit and your overall health suffers as a result. So, needless to say, antioxidants are important. The relationship between antioxidants and free radicals sounds fairly straight forward; free radicals get produced, antioxidants take care of them, but it is far more complicated than that. The term "antioxidant" describes a broad category of different chemical compounds, and their varying chemical structure makes the different types of antioxidants more or less suitable to be used by the different types of cells throughout your body. Because of this, different types of antioxidants can be beneficial for certain body functions, and by extension, certain antioxidants can be beneficial for things like combating joint inflammation or promoting liver function, for example.
As it relates to tea, the camellia sinensis, or tea bush, is jam packed with a specific group of naturally occurring plant compounds called catechins. A member of the flavonoid family, these catechins give plants their color, and when we consume them as part of the tea we drink, they function as antioxidants that can benefit our bodies in a number of ways. The most commonly discussed compound in this family is EGCG, or epigallocatechin galloate, which has been shown in countless peer reviewed articles to have benefits for everything from brain health to combating cancer cells, but this is not the only one. Along with EGCG, there are a number of other polyphenol compounds in tea like p-coumaroylquinic acid and gallic acid, that all work together to help to lower cholesterol, promote digestive health, slow down aging via reducing the amount of damage your DNA receives, as well as a wide variety of other health benefits.
With all of this in mind, you obviously want to get a healthy dose of these antioxidants, and if you are going to be drinking tea for it's health benefits, these are the go-to molecules that you want the most of. This is important for a discussion about decaf teas because there are two major processes used by the companies that produce decaf teas, and one leaves these wonderful little compounds much more intact and useful to our bodies than the other.
How is tea decaffeinated?
When the caffeine is removed from the tea, one of two processes are used:
1. Ethyl Acetate - With this method of decaffeination, a chemical solvent is applied to the tea leaves. The solvent dissolves and removes almost all of the caffeine, but it is a blunt tool. Ethyl Acetate acts as a solvent or a partial solvent to many other molecules aside from just caffeine, and while it removes caffeine very effectively, it also takes most of the antioxidants along with it. At the end of the day, only about 30% of the antioxidants, including the ever important EGCG, survive the gauntlet ethyl acetate puts them through. The survivors of this process are also worse for wear, as the process of removing the caffeine also puts a large amount of stress on the chemical structure of the antioxidant molecules. This stress warps their structure, making them less effective in removing free radicals from your body, and requiring more of them to meet the same effective dose as a non decaf tea. All in all, decaffeinating with Ethyl Acetate makes teas processed with this method effectively decaffeinated, but also devoid of most of the health benefits you'd get from a regular cup of tea.
2. CO2 - This method of decaffeination involves using water and carbon dioxide to eliminate the caffeine from the tea leaves. Thankfully for us, this is a more precise tool than ethyl acetate. CO2 bonds much less aggressively than it's industry cousin, and leaves a whopping 95% of the catechins and antioxidants intact after the process is finished. But, while CO2 doesn't flat out remove the antioxidants from the tea like the previous method, much like ethyl acetate, it does so at the cost of warping their chemical structure. This new shape makes them function less effectively when used by the body, and while the jury is out on just how much this process changes the efficacy of these compounds, what can be said for certain is that they don't function quite as well as they did in their unaltered state.
Stick with CO2 Decaf Teas
With all of this being said, CO2 Decaf teas are still a very healthy choice. You are still getting a strong dose of antioxidants, and if you're looking for a standard tea without the unwanted caffeine, they are most certainly the way to go.
Why It's Best to Drink Regular Tea
In reality though, it's best to drink regular tea - unless there is a specific health problem preventing you from doing so. Tea may contain caffeine, but it's such a small amount of caffeine that only those with serious sensitivities will be affected by it.
The tea manufacturers don't have to state which process is used to remove the caffeine, so you'll have no idea just how much of the original antioxidants remain in the tea. It's better to drink natural green and black tea, as that's how you'll get all those wonderful health benefits. We make a point to ask all of our manufacturers which method they use, and we have curated our selections to include teas that are only decaffeinated with the CO2 method, but we still stand by the fact that if you are seeking to maximize the health benefits in tea, shoot for regular teas.
If you're set on drinking a beverage without caffeine in it for health reasons or otherwise, herbal teas are also choc full of antioxidants and come in a variety of blends and flavors to boot. An herb like Rooibos or it's cousin Honeybush both have strong antioxidant profiles while remaining entirely caffeine free. These herbs have a fairly neutral, sweetish flavor that blends quite nicely with fruits and more savory spices like a chai base, as well as being fantastic by themselves. Other herbs like chamomile have been blended into a variety of delicious blends and make for a good bed time tea, while an herb like peppermint is strong enough to be drank entirely by itself for a cool, refreshing beverage that is also good for digestion. Another strong herb that has been extensively blended is hibiscus. High in vitamin C and with a flavor something akin to lemonade, this hibiscus is often combined with fruits to make deliciously tangy blends that are a great alternatives to things like juice and sodas. While you'd be missing out on some of the tea specific benefits like L-theanine and EGCG, you'd still be getting many of the same health benefits, as well as some that tea itself doesn't have!
We recommend drinking a variety of different herbs along with a traditional tea to really get the full benefit of all these different plants, and with all of the flavor options available on the market today there is something out there to satisfy virtually every palette!