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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