When you order decaf, you still get caffeine

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Some jittery people out there -- you can spot them gnashing their teeth, shaking like Jell-O and sweating profusely -- have grounds to suspect that the decaf coffee they are drinking is secretly laced with that demon caffeine.

But, hey, don't get so jumpy and start a brouhaha with your barista over messing up the order. A 2006 study by University of Florida researchers found that the decaffeination process doesn't eliminate caffeine. It merely reduces the levels of the popular stimulant.

Test samples from 10 national chains and local Florida coffeehouses showed that 16-ounce decaf cups contained caffeine levels between 8.6 to 13.9 milligrams. A 16-ounce cup of regular coffee: 170 milligrams.

"If someone drinks five to 10 cups of decaffeinated coffee, the dose of caffeine could easily reach the level present [in] a cup or two of caffeinated coffee," Dr. Bruce Goldberger, co-author of the study, told the journal Preventive Medicine Week.

If you're sensitive to even the slightest levels of caffeine, you might want to lay off coffee altogether and try herbal tea, which is completely caffeine-free. As Goldberger says, people who choose decaf often do so for medical reasons, ranging from sleep disorders to anxiety to elevated blood pressure.

So if someone is mistakenly or purposely given high-test instead of unleaded, it's nothing to snicker at, although "Seinfeld" did produce an entire episode around the issue.

ABC News in 2005 took decaf coffee from a Starbucks in Los Angeles to a lab. It contained 95 milligrams of caffeine -- more than what's in an espresso shot.

Absent access to a lab, the best a consumer could hope for is to use new self-test strips recently put on the market. Called D+Caf ($9.95 at www.caffeinetest.com), the strips can determine after a five-second dip whether you're drinking caf or decaf.

The strips don't give an exact measure of caffeine levels. But if a decaf sample level is above 20 milligrams per 6-ounce serving, the strip will test positive with a dark line similar to results of a pregnancy test.

According to Tom Round, vice president of the product's maker, Silver Lake Research, 25 of the 100 decaf samples the biotech firm tested during the research phase had too-high caffeine levels.

Not great news for decaf drinkers. But then again, recent research has linked caffeine consumption to a host of health benefits, such as improved cognitive function and sharper aerobic capacity. And a recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine linked coffee consumption to a longer life span.

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