The Amount of Caffeine in Decaf Coffee and Tea

Illustration depicting the amount of caffeine in decaf coffee and decaf tea
Illustration: Catherine Song. © The Spruce, 2018 

There are many reasons why you might choose to drink decaffeinated coffee or tea instead of regular. It could be for medical reasons or because you want to avoid getting the jitters or being up all night. It's important to know that when you drink decaf beverages, you're still putting trace amounts of caffeine into your system.

The Definition of Decaf

Both coffee and tea are naturally caffeinated. An eight-ounce cup of coffee contains 80 to 135 milligrams of caffeine. The same amount of black tea has 40 to 60 milligrams, while green tea has just 15 milligrams. There is no such thing as coffee or tea that is without caffeine in its original state—which is why these beverages are often decaffeinated.

"Decaf" is short for "decaffeinated" or "decaffeination." Contrary to popular belief, decaf is not the same as "caffeine-free." Caffeine-free means the product is completely void of caffeine—never had it, never will. However, decaf means the natural caffeine in the beverage has been removed through a special process during production.

Despite going through the process of caffeine removal, most decaf coffees and teas still contain trace amounts of caffeine—maybe 1 percent to 2 percent. Due to the lack of enforcement for decaf health claims, some decaf drinks may contain moderate—or even more—amounts of caffeine.

Caffeine-Free Coffee Alternatives

When it comes to coffee, you don't have a pure caffeine-free option (there is actually a naturally caffeine-free coffee out there, but it's very rare). Be very cautious about any product that claims to be a caffeine-free coffee. They're often either decaf or a blend of ground herbs and other ingredients designed to replicate the flavor of real coffee. Instead, consider drinking chicory. This is a naturally caffeine-free herb that is roasted and has a taste very similar to coffee.

Caffeine-Free Tea Alternatives

Tea is available in a few different forms and that makes it easier to find a tea void of any caffeine. While many herbal infusions (also called tisanes) are naturally caffeine-free, decaf teas are teas that naturally contain caffeine but have had most of the caffeine removed. If you are looking for a truly caffeine-free tea, do not choose a decaf black tea, for example—it will have traces of caffeine. Instead, select an herbal tea, which is made from plant material other than true tea leaves, so it is not a tea at all. An added bonus is that many herbal teas offer health benefits, such as aiding in digestion or providing vitamins and antioxidants. 

Rooibos (also known as red tea) is a great naturally caffeine-free tea option. It's also an herbal tea but has a taste that is more like black tea than any of the more common herb or spice teas available.

The Effects of Traces of Caffeine

One or two percent of caffeine may not seem like much. Over the course of the day—depending on how much you drink—these small amounts will add up. If you are sensitive to caffeine, you probably don't want to have several cups in the morning, followed by an afternoon mug, topped off with a decaf tea before bed. A safer bet is to switch to one of the naturally caffeine-free alternatives. You may come to enjoy them even more and find you don't miss the real thing.