Decaffeinated tea and coffee: unravelling the truth from the myths

It’s standard advice to drink less caffeine during pregnancy, and as part of my process of switching to a pregnancy diet while trying for a baby, I’ve replaced a lot of the caffeinated tea I drink with decaf. I don’t like coffee but I drink a massive quantity of tea – usually four or five huge mugs a day at work, and another at home in the evening. In normal mug terms, that’s probably getting on for seven or eight cups.

Both BBC Health and NHS Choices recommend that pregnant women drink no more than 200mg of caffeine per day. To put this in context, you can drink the following approximate amounts of tea and coffee:

  • 1.5 mugs of filter coffee
  • 2 mugs of instant coffee
  • 2.5 mugs of tea

There are also small amounts of caffeine in chocolate, and if you drink coke or other energy drinks then you need to factor this in too (the websites listed above contain breakdowns of the amount of caffeine in various different drinks).

So clearly my eight mugs of tea per day is way too much.

The answer to this seems really easy – I’ve started drinking a ‘real’ caffeinated tea first thing in the morning, and then switching to decaf for the rest of the day. Decaf tea still contains a little caffeine, but even with my high consumption I’d be well below the recommended 200mg per day (if you drink a lot of coffee you might still need to cut down, even on decaf). I tried a few different decaf teas, and my favourite by a mile was PG Tips – it’s my favourite for caffeinated tea too, and I could hardly tell the difference. I like herbal tea and I’m trying to replace some of my usual tea intake with that – luckily I hate green tea, which contains caffeine, although not so luckily I also don’t like the taste of rooibos, another naturally caffeine free option.

I thought it was all going swimmingly. Then, in my usual panic-stricken way, I started reading round to check that drinking too much decaf tea isn’t a problem in itself. And – oh no – I started finding articles like these:

It turns out there are three main ways of decaffeinating tea – using water, CO2 or this nasty-sounding dichloromethane system. The latter is the cheapest and easiest method and all the major tea manufacturers in the UK use it (according to the Twinings website), although in America it’s used less nowadays. I didn’t really want to spend a fortune sending off for expensive teas from abroad that use one of the other two techniques, so I looked into it further to find out how bad the chemical process really is.

I found a pretty well-balanced article in HealthyChild.org: yes dichloromethane is bad, but the amounts left in tea at the end of the decaffeination process are absolutely miniscule. Lab tests on rats (I’m not generally a fan of animal testing but that’s a story for another time) haven’t shown any negative results even at the rate of 70-80 cups of tea or coffee per day. Most sensible websites seem to back this up, like RateTea.com which says that modern decaffeination using this method leaves traces of the chemical well within safe limits. Unfortunately it’s pretty hard to find any really useful science on this topic as most refers to inhalation of dichloromethane in things like solvents and paint strippers – in which circumstance it’s definitely a bad thing.

I usually find that once I’ve done some research on this kind of topic, I’m confident making a decision one way or another. This one I’m finding a lot harder, because much of the information on the web is very emotively written – the decaffeination process seems to be a topic which evokes a lot of panic and bad science. It’s so hard to get hold of tea made with other methods, but once I’ve finished my current supply of PG decaf I might try to find some that’s not going to bankrupt me – and in the mean time I’ll carry on as I am.

In the long run I’m benefitting my baby-to-be by not drinking caffeine, and I don’t want to give up tea entirely because it’s one of my biggest pleasures! Stopping drinking alcohol, cutting down on oily fish and reducing my caffeine intake were easy decisions because all the science and health advice is in agreement. When it comes to stopping drinking decaf tea, I feel like this is an area in which self-sacrifice for the sake of making my body the healthiest possible place to grow a baby might be misplaced. For now, I’m going to trust that the scientists and manufacturers have got things right and that the limits they’ve imposed for safe consumption really are safe.

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Is there a “best time of year” to have a baby?

I did my second pregnancy test at the weekend – still negative – and then started my period pretty much straight afterwards. So doing the test was a big fat waste of money, and on top of that I had to endure the misery of a second purple line still not appearing. It wasn’t the best start to my Sunday morning!

One of the reasons that I hoped I would get pregnant in the first couple of months of trying is that I always wanted a spring baby. To me, it seems like there must be a reason that everything gives birth in the spring – lambs, chicks, even plants. In nature it’s because the world is getting warmer and the weather is getting calmer, so small, vulnerable things are more likely to survive. Imagine if a little lamb was born in the depths of winter – it would be impossible for its mother to keep it warm and well fed. And vice versa, if it was born in the height of summer, it would be difficult for the mother to keep it cool and well hydrated. I have all the advantages of civilisation to help me care for a baby at any time of year, but I still like to do things the natural way where I can.

So now here we are in the middle of August. If I get pregnant this month my baby will be born at the end of May – that’s perfect. For family reasons it’s perfect too, as my Mum is a sixth form teacher and by May she’s pretty much finished for the term. She and I would both love it if she could take some time off to come and be with us and our baby in the early summer.

But if it takes another couple of months then we’re well into June and July. I just want it to happen for us this month, really desperately.

Part of it is selfish, I have to admit. Even though English summers are hardly renowned for their balmy sunshine, sometimes it gets really hot and humid, especially down here in the South-East. I hate being hot – I’m definitely a winter person – and I don’t want to stagger about, nine months pregnant, feeling miserable and sweaty in July or August. I’d much rather be heavily pregnant in the cool of spring.

But is there more to it than that? Is there a ‘best time of year’ to have a baby in terms of optimising education and development? Articles like this one in the Daily Telegraph make me stressed out – August is apparently the worst month to have a baby because the child will always be the youngest in the year, and will therefore lag behind his or her peers both intellectually and physically. There are even scary statistics about August babies being 4% less likely to go to University.

I try to rationalise this by telling myself that it does seem very subjective, depending on the child in question. My husband has pointed out that, as a September baby and the eldest in his year (and a total swot, it has to be said) he sometimes felt like he was held back by some of his classmates – maybe if he’d been young in the year instead he would have been more stretched and challenged.

Added to the issue of subjectivity is the fact that I’ve found lots of other articles which say entirely contradictory things: for example inThe Independent (“Babies born in winter are bigger, brighter and more successful“) and Metro (“Winter babies ‘face a sadder life’ as adults“). None of the research is very conclusive, and most makes only vague attempts to explain the findings in terms in terms of socio-economic factors or seasonal changes in diet and the mother’s mood.

When it comes down to it, I think that beggars can’t be choosers. I desperately want a baby, and if it happens this month that will be wonderful. But if I can have a healthy child, I don’t think I’ll care in which month he or she is born. Whichever one it is, it’ll be the best month for us.

How much fish should I eat during pregnancy and conception?

I’m a pescatarian, which means I eat fish but no other kinds of meat, and I would hate to give up eating it. For a start, it’s delicious! But more importantly, it’s really, really good for me, especially as I don’t get protein from other kinds of meat.

Eating more fish is one of the NHS website’s top eight tips on on eating healthily – as well as lean protein, fish contains lots of vitamins and minerals, omega-3 fatty acids and fish oils which help brain and eye development, reduce inflammation and help prevent cardiovascular disease. It’s just a great source of so much good nutrition.

As is so often the case, however, we humans have managed to mess things up by polluting the world around us – in this case we’ve polluted the seas with mercury and other heavy metals, mainly (according to Wikipedia) from coal power stations and chlorine production plants. The Wikipedia page on Mercury in Fish has a comprehensive table on which fish absorb the most mercury – tilefish, swordfish and shark are the worst and luckily they’re not commonly eaten in England. In general oily fish are higher up the table, and white fish are lower (but that’s only a rough guide).

The human body is usually able to eliminate this mercury, but it can be toxic to foetuses, damaging their nervous systems. This is a deeply horrible thought, and when you consider that raw fish such as shellfish are also not recommended as they can cause food poisoning, I imagine most people’s first reaction (and mine too) is to steer miles clear of anything that’s been anywhere near the sea.

We need to be really careful about having that reaction, though, because when I read more about it, omega-3 is really important for a developing baby – according to a 2007 study (summarised in lots of news articles at the time including on the BBC and Guardian websites) it boosts intellect, improves social skills and even benefits eyesight, among lots of other things. Plus, there are all the vitamins, minerals and proteins to consider – all of these are good for nourishing a baby, and we all know that it’s much more effective to get them through diet rather than supplements.

All this conflicting information might seem very confusing, but actually it’s in line with what the usual sources of information on diet during pregnancy recommend – you should carry on eating fish, but in moderation. The brilliantly thorough NHS webpage on fish and shellfish sums this up, and I’m going to paste a big chunk of it here so you have it to hand:

“Eating fish is good for your health and the development of your baby. But pregnant women should avoid some types of fish and limit the amount they eat of some others.

When pregnant, you can reduce your risk of food poisoning by avoiding raw shellfish. Below is advice from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Committee on Toxicity about eating fish when trying to get pregnant, or when pregnant or breastfeeding:

  • Shark, swordfish and marlin: do not eat these if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. All other adults, including breastfeeding women, should eat no more than one portion per week. This is because these fish can contain more mercury than other types of fish, and this can damage a developing baby’s nervous system.
  • Oily fish: if you are trying for a baby, pregnant or breastfeeding, you should have no more than two portions of oily fish a week. A portion is around 140 grams.
  • Canned tuna: if you are trying for a baby or are pregnant, you should have no more than four cans of tuna a week. This is because tuna contains higher levels of mercury than other fish. If you are breastfeeding, there is no limit on how much canned tuna you can eat.

Even though I’m still not pregnant yet (*sob*) I’m trying to get into these good habits now so I’m ready to enjoy a healthy and safe pregnancy diet.

My first proper pregnancy test – and it was negative.

For the last couple of weeks I have been watching entirely too much TV – I live near London and I’ve been totally absorbed by the Olympic Games. As a result I have been appallingly neglecting this blog, but I’m back up and running now!

I did my first real pregnancy test yesterday – and it was negative. Last month I started my period so I didn’t have to do one then. As I’ve mentioned, my periods can be very irregular so it’s pretty difficult to tell the best time to do a test – the packet says the test works from the first day of your missed period. If I had “normal” 28 day cycles my period should have started yesterday, but to be honest it could be anything up to six weeks.

Now I’m in a weird limbo state where I haven’t started my period, but the test was negative – I don’t know whether it was just too soon for the test, or whether my period is just being its normal unpredictable self. I really envy women who are regular, and for whom being two or three days late is exciting. For me it’s just tiresome – and also expensive because I’m inevitably going to waste lots of pregnancy tests. I’m going to wait a week before I do another one otherwise I’ll be bankrupt rather than pregnant!

The whole process of doing the test was very odd. Exciting, but also disconcerting. If you’ve never done one before, tests come in lots of varieties – there are cheap and cheerful ones, right up to amazingly complex digital ones. I have bought a bunch of the cheap ones, and one expensive digital one which I’m going to save until one of the cheap ones says I’m pregnant. Then I can use the expensive one to make sure! With the cheap ones, you have to wee on the end of a little stick – the part you have to get wet is ridiculously small! Then you leave it for three minutes – a little purple line appears to show that the test is working, and then if you’re pregnant a second purple line appears between three and fifteen minutes later.

The most reliable time to test is meant to be the first time you go to the loo in the morning, because then the concentration of the pregnancy hormone that the test detects – hCG – is higher. Inevitably I forgot first thing in the morning, but I couldn’t resist taking the test that day – I don’t want to find out I’m pregnant on a weekday morning and then have to go to work and pretend that everything’s normal! So I just went ahead and did the test – it wasn’t exactly a vary reliable attempt. Hence the weird limbo – I could still be pregnant. I just want an answer one way or another!

Waiting to see whether the little purple line would appear was bizarre. You have to keep the test still while it’s working, so my husband and I leant over the side of the sink where it was sitting and just watched it. I felt really excited at the possibilities, but also I didn’t feel like it was going to be positive – maybe my body knows that it isn’t pregnant. Or maybe I was just feeling pessimistic that day. Either way I am second guessing my every feeling, even though I know stressing about it is going to make conception less likely, not more.

After three minutes we went away, assuming it was negative – I checked again at 15 miniutes and then threw it away, but I had a final peek hours later while it was in the bin. I can’t help but wonder which test will be the one that brings the good news.

The worse thing is, if I haven’t started my period by then, I’ll have to go through the whole emotional palaver again in a week.