Expert Opinions

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Are decaf coffees and teas safe?

L.M., Bronxville, NY

There's been some concern about the safety of decaffeinated coffees and teas because some producers use a chemical called methylene chloride as a decaf solvent. At high concentrations, methylene chloride may be carcinogenic, though the amounts allowed in finished products (10 parts per million) are considered safe by the FDA. An alternative decaffeination method used by most high-end manufacturers, the Swiss water process, is safer and more natural. Check the label, or contact the producer, to see what method is used. "Generally, it is safe to drink decaffeinated coffee and tea if the Swiss water extraction method is used," says Joe Pepping, Ph.D., clinical pharmacist at the Complementary Medicine and Pain Management division of Kaiser Permanente in Honolulu.

Another concern is the small amount of residual caffeine that remains after decaffeination: 2 to 5 mg per 6-ounce cup. That compares with 60 to 175 mg in a cup of regular coffee, 20 to 100 mg in a cup of regular tea, and 5 to 35 mg in an ounce of dark chocolate. For those who avoid caffeine because of conditions such as benign fibrocystic breast nodules, gastrointestinal complaints, insomnia, or anxiety, this residual caffeine doesn't pose a problem. But even small amounts of caffeine may affect some heart arrhythmias (premature ventricular contractions and other severe ventricular arrhythmias), affective disorders (such as the manic phase of bipolar disorders), and migraine headaches. Says Dr. Pepping, "People with these disorders should use decaf coffee and tea cautiously and with the approval of their physician."

Finally, a few studies have raised concerns that drinking many cups of decaf coffee daily may raise cholesterol levels, though results are inconclusive. You may want to limit intake to one or two cups a day.

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