How Safe Is It To Drink Decaf Coffee During Pregnancy?

Decaf Coffee During Pregnancy

As pregnant women, we all want what’s best for the baby growing inside our wombs. We hustle to clean up every bit of our lifestyle, all so that our babies have a good, healthy start. However, while we don’t mind giving up on our alcohol and junk food habits, our morning cup of coffee is still something that many of us are still extremely possessive of, especially during this particular phase of our lives.

Unfortunately, caffeine, found in coffee, is a drug, and if consumed in excessive amounts, may cross the placenta. This can inhibit the flow of blood into the placenta and cause a sharp spike in blood sugar and blood pressure levels. It can also make the liver, which is already working hard to meet the increased hormonal demands related to pregnancy, go through additional strain. Research confirms that drinking more than 5 cups of coffee may increase a pregnant mother’s risk of miscarriage. 1


Which leads us to wonder – would coffee be safe for pregnancy if it was decaffeinated?

What Is Decaf Coffee?

Decaf coffee is coffee with 97% of the caffeine removed


Coffee is required to have at least 97% of its caffeine removed in order for it to qualify as decaf. Unknown to most of us, there are different techniques used to make decaf coffee; some being safe while some are not. To know whether your cup of decaf is safe to drink when you’re pregnant, it’s imperative to know what method was used to make it.

Decaffeination of coffee beans is done by using water to soften the beans and using a special substance to extract the caffeine. Water alone cannot be used because it strips away too much of the flavor. The substances that are used to extract the caffeine may come in contact with the beans either directly or indirectly. This is why the processes are known as direct or indirect decaffeination respectively.


Different Methods For Decaffeination

Decaffeination of coffee is done with the help of water and a solvent such as CO2 or ethyl acetate

3 main methods are used to achieve decaffeination of coffee. All of these will result in some amount of caffeine being left in the coffee, but this will be a much smaller quantity than what is found in regular coffee. Direct methods involve the beans coming in direct contact with the solvent used for the decaffeination process, which isn’t the case when it comes to the indirect methods.


1. Carbon Dioxide Method

This is a direct decaffeination process which uses carbon dioxide as a solvent. The coffee beans are immersed and soaked in compressed CO2, and this removes 97% percent of the caffeine. Once the beans return to room temperature, the carbon dioxide containing the extracted caffeine evaporates.

2. The Solvent Method

This is an Indirect decaffeination method, where the unroasted green coffee beans are softened by soaking them in water to extract the caffeine. The water with the caffeine is then treated with a solvent, which is then heated to extract the caffeine from the solvent. The water containing all the essential coffee bean oils is then returned to the beans so that the flavors can be reabsorbed by them. This process is repeated several times until the beans reabsorb all the rich coffee flavors and essential oils minus the caffeine. Now they are ready to be dried and roasted.


3. The Swiss Water Method

Also an indirect method, this method softens the green coffee beans by soaking them in water to remove the caffeine. For decaffeination, the liquid is run through carbon filters or activated charcoal or carbon filters. The fluid containing the flavor is returned to the beans which are then dried and roasted.

Note: Ethyl acetate, a compound found in many fruits is the most widely used solvent today. If your coffee label tells you that the beans have been “naturally decaffeinated”, it means the solvent method, specifically using ethyl acetate was used. This may not sound like a natural process but is labeled such because the solvent is a natural chemical found in nature.


Decaf Coffee Is No Longer Unsafe To Be Consumed During Pregnancy

Coffee labels that read "naturally decaffeinated" or "Swiss water processed" are safe to be consumed during pregnancy

The safety of decafs stems from some of the solvents that are used instead of ethyl acetate, particularly in the past. For instance, methylene chloride, a solvent that was used in the past, has been suspected of causing cancer in humans and is therefore not used too often right now. Another solvent called trichloroethylene which was used widely in the 1970s was also found to be carcinogenic and was discontinued. Needless to say, such compounds, if ingested could cause serious damage to the fetus such as causing neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida and anencephaly.2


Almost all coffee labels today read “naturally decaffeinated” or “Swiss water processed” so you can rest assured that your coffee contains no harmful chemicals. It is therefore perfectly safe to drink decaf coffee when you’re pregnant. Do make it a practice to read your coffee labels though so that on the off-chance that it reads differently, you can always talk to the staff at your favorite barista about the method that was used. In case they act uncertain, your next best bet is probably to skip the coffee and go for a muffin instead.

How Much Decaf Coffee Can You Drink When You’re Pregnant?

Decafs also contain small amounts of caffeine so it is important to ensure you're withing the 200 mg caffeine limit.

Research certifies that as long as you consume not more than 200 mg of caffeine per day, you can definitely expect a safe pregnancy sans any complications.3 To be on the safer side, experts recommend you bring down your daily limit even lower to about 150 mg. These guidelines make decaf coffee quite safe for pregnancy.

However, bear in mind that decaf coffee may contain a small amount of caffeine – about 13.9 mg (although some larger decafs from specialty chains may even have a higher content). Combine this information with the amount of caffeine you may roughly consume from other foods and drinks to reach a good estimate regarding the amount of decaf coffee you can have per day when pregnant. As long as you are well within the 150 – 200 mg limit, you have nothing to worry about.

As mentioned before, make it a practice to read your coffee labels to be doubly sure as to what kind of method is being used for your decaf. Do a little extra research before heading to your neighborhood barista the next time and never hesitate to quiz the staff. You may come across as slightly obsessive, but if that means you get to feel secure, indulging in your favorite brew while being pregnant, knowing that your baby will still be safe, it’s well worth it!