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New Coffee Drinkers Guide: Decaf vs Regular Coffee – What’s The Difference?

For years, I was firmly in the death before decaf camp, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve had to add decaf to my nightly coffee routine so that I get better sleep.

And if you’re wondering if there’s really any difference between decaf and regular coffee, then the answer is YES! There are several ways that they differ from one another, but the most noticeable way they differ is the amount of caffeine you get from a cup of decaf vs regular coffee.

If you’re interested in all the ways that these two types of coffee differ from each other, then keep reading as I share everything that I’ve learned.

Just don’t tell anyone that I’m drinking decaf in the evenings!

8 Ways Regular Coffee and Decaf Coffee Differ When Compared

1. The Caffeine Content Per Cup

Pretty much everyone already knows that decaf coffee is synonymous with no caffeine, right? Well, that’s not exactly true.

Decaf coffee does have caffeine – it’s just a very small amount compared to regular coffee. According to the Mayo Clinic,

  • An 8oz. cup of decaf coffee has approximately 2 mg of caffeine
  • An 8oz. cup of regular coffee has approximately 96 mg of caffeine

Yowzers, that’s quite the difference in caffeine, eh?

Regular coffee has 48 times the amount of caffeine as decaf coffee!

As you might expect, that caffeine difference has a big effect on your body, especially how you sleep at night if you’ve had a cuppa too close to bedtime.

Note: actual caffeine content of a cup of coffee can vary quite a bit. Factors such as processing and brewing time affect the caffeine level.

How Is The Caffeine Removed From Decaf Coffee?

If you’re naturally curious, like me, then you might be wondering – how is decaf coffee made? Is it grown with less caffeine? Or is caffeine removed from regular coffee beans?

So, decaf is made by taking regular coffee beans and putting them through a decaffeination process. Here’s how this process works:

  • the unroasted coffee beans are steamed
  • the coffee beans are then rinsed with something that extracts most of the caffeine from the beans

Pretty wild, eh? I’m sure it’s more nuanced than that, but this is the basic process.

2. The Acidity Levels

I don’t know about you, but I really have that feeling you get sometimes in the bottom of your throat after drinking coffee. You know the one – where it feels all acid and bubbly.

Well, the acid, or pH levels, of coffee differs when you compare regular coffee to decaf coffee.

Regular coffee is more acidic than decaf coffee!

There is a common misconception here, with many people incorrectly assuming that decaf is more acidic because it is often made with Robusta (a naturally more acidic coffee bean).

But the truth is that regular coffee is more acidic, and the higher caffeine content in regular coffee causes more acid to be released in the stomach (source: Cleveland Clinic).

So, if you are prone to acid reflux, then regular coffee is best avoided. To help you visualize this, here’s a quick science lesson in pH levels.

credit: Henry’s House of Coffee

So, as you can see a pH level of 7 is neutral and black coffee comes in at a #5 on this chart, which means that it’s acidic but on the low end of that spectrum. And a study by Pico Technology tested the pH of black coffee and measured it at 5.51.

Where does decaf rank on the pH scale? It is slightly less acidic than black coffee, but I have been unable to get an exact measurement on that.

This study from 1994 on the effects of regular and decaf coffee on GERD and acid reflux concluded that decaf coffee has less acidity than regular coffee.

And this study from 2014 on antioxidant levels in coffee, which is linked to acidity, notes that decaf coffee is less acidic than regular coffee.

Note: you can lower the acidity level of your coffee by adding milk or more water.

It’s also important to note that different varieties of coffee have different levels of acidity. Henry’s House of Coffee did a really interesting test of all their coffee varieties and found the varying results that you see below.

coffee acidity levels
credit: Henry’s House of Coffee


3. The Amount of Antioxidants

One of the often touted benefits of coffee is that its packed with beneficial antioxidants. But did you know that not all coffees are created equal when it comes to these antioxidants?

A study from 2014 on antioxidant levels in regular and decaffeinated coffees concluded that regular coffee has more antioxidants present than in decaf coffee.

So, if you’re drinking coffee for you health, then it’s best to stick with regular coffee for the full antioxidant punch.

But if you do drink decaf, then you won’t lose much. Studies show you’re looking at a max of 15% fewer antioxidants in decaf coffee.

4. The Taste

Once you’ve had decaf coffee, it’s easy to understand why the lower caffeinated version is on the receiving end of so much hate. It’s the taste difference.

Ask people who dislike decaf, and they’ll likely tell you that it has a bland, watery taste. And those of us who have to drink it in the evenings will never admit this to you!

The truth is that there really is a noticeable taste difference between the two — and there’s a good reason for it.

The decaffeinating process removes those flavors and oils that give coffee that yummy deliciousness that you’re used to. Without them, you end up with decaf – a not so great coffee substitute.

5. The Effect On Mood and Mental Function

Studies have shown that regular coffee offers a lot of benefits to the mind that you don’t get with decaf coffee. This includes:

  • improved mood and lower depression risk
  • better memory
  • better mental function
  • better reaction time

You get all of those benefits from the caffeine in regular coffee, which means you don’t get quite the same benefit from drinking decaf.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

6. The Metabolism Boost

If you’re the type of person who is concerned about body weight, then you might like to know that regular coffee boosts your metabolism and your body’s fat burning.

But neither of those boosts are seen when drinking decaf coffee.

So, while weight loss is no reason to choose regular coffee over decaf, it’s definitely interesting information to file away.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

7. The Athletic Performance Boost

Do you work out a lot or compete in any sports? If so, then you’ll want to continue drinking regular coffee instead of switching to decaf.

That’s because studies have shown that drinking regular coffee gives you enhanced athletic performance.

So, if you’re getting reading to run a 5K or go to a really intense spin class, then fuel up with some regular coffee beforehand and ditch the decaf.

Cause you won’t see the same boost from drinking decaf.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

8. The Benefit For Your Liver

Right now, you might not be giving much thought to your liver. I don’t. Except after those nights of drinking a bit too much wine.

But here’s the thing, drinking coffee is actually awesome for your liver … as long as you’re drinking regular coffee.

Decaf coffee doesn’t offer the same liver protecting benefits as regular coffee.

The regular coffee benefits to your liver include lower risk of liver cirrhosis or end stage liver damage. Boom!

Sources: 1, 2, 3

Which Is Better Decaf or Regular Coffee?

Let’s face it, regular coffee is better than decaf coffee in almost all the ways. Regular coffee has a stronger (better) flavor and more health benefits than decaf coffee.

Decaf coffee is only better for people who need to consume less caffeine or less acid. That’s why people drink decaf coffee.

Otherwise, it’s regular coffee all the way!

The Takeaway

Regular coffee provides health benefits that do not apply to decaf.

These include more antioxidants, improved mental health, increased metabolic rate, enhanced athletic performance, and a lower risk of liver damage.

But decaf coffee has lower acid levels and less caffeine (if that interests you).

As you can see, the scales are largely in favor of regular coffee, but decaf does have it uses for those who need it.

credit: Unsplash

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