Decaf, Caf--Is It Really All Caf?

By Corby Kummer

Today Jerry Baldwin brings up one of my favorite coffee-related subjects--the way, that is, a particularly problematic child becomes your favorite. Researching "Caffeine and Decaf," a longish chapter in my Joy of Coffee, easily took longer than any other chapter, and involved reading as I recall 325 articles on caffeine--not scanning, or just reading the abstracts, but reading them.

I didn't come out a scientist, or an expert--but I did come out with an appreciation of how complex the subject is, and how it can make even the calmest researchers, shall we say, a little high-strung. Any epidemiologist has to tackle it, not to mention cancer or heart-disease researcher.

The news then, and the news recently, is pretty much all good. Whatever potential benefits claimed for drinking coffee--alertness, of course, perhaps reduced risk of stroke and certain cancers, perhaps not--no definitive harm has been shown. As for addiction, another story. I learned a lot about the definitions of "addiction" and "dependence," and the societal harm associated with them. Caffeine, so far, is not defined as a societal harm.

But an epicurean menace? Here's where Jerry comes back in. We've both spent years and years sampling different methods. I even journeyed far, far into the south of Italy to visit a usually super-secret plant that used the then-brand-new supercritical carbon dioxide method of decaffeination, which held enormous promise--promise, as Jerry comments, that hasn't been quite fulfilled.

I'm with him on general disappointment with water process, though less cross about the Swiss Water ads he mentions--ads I heard all the time on public radio on a recent swing through the Bay Area, so I understand why he grits his teeth on a daily basis. I just look for methylene chloride, the chemical process I'm convinced is safe and is the best for flavor--and, as it happens, was defending in a coffee shop at our Aspen ideas fest just last week. Maybe Jerry and I will form a Friends of Safe Chemicals In Your Food group and spend the rest of our days living it down.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/07/decaf-caf-is-it-really-all-caf/20759/