Q. How do they make decaf tea? Is it full of chemicals?

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Thursday, 14 November 2013.
Tagged: caffeine, energy, healthy eating, tea

Q. How do they make decaf tea? Is it full of chemicals?

THE QUESTION IN FULL: 

Q. I drink a lot of Liptons & Tetley decaf tea and want to know how they make them decaf. Are they loaded with chemicals?

A. According to both tea producers, their tea is decaffeinated using a solvent called methylene chloride (also known as dichloromethane).

Here's how the process works:

The caffeine is removed after picking while the tea leaves are still green. Then the solvent is removed by heating the tea leaves to 40ºC. A tiny residue of the solvent remains behind - some 2 parts per million, well below the limit set by the EU of 5 parts per million.

The methylene chloride solvent has been used for many years to decaffeinate both tea and coffee and has a good safety record. It is very specific for caffeine so it dissolves out the caffeine but not the other flavour components, unlike other solvents.

They are not able to use the ‘Swiss water process' that is often advertised for coffee, as it requires the leaves to be treated with water as part of the procedure which would ruin the tea.

Decaf tea has almost no caffeine. While a standard cup of tea contains anywhere between 20 to 50 milligrams of caffeine, decaf has less than 3 milligrams.

In the end, you have to weigh up the risk of harm from the solvent residue against the side-effects of caffeine. In my opinion, both are small.