Does Decaf Coffee Contain a Harmful Additive? Advocates Want to Ban a Certain Chemical in the Brew

Consumer health advocates are petitioning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban methylene chloride, a key chemical used to decaffeinate coffee beans. The chemical is almost entirely removed during the decaffeination process, but advocates argue that a nearly 66-year-old federal law mandates the agency ban the additive because it has been proven to cause cancer in rodents. Methylene chloride, a since-banned consumer paint stripper, is used by nearly all of the major coffee companies in the U.S., including Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, according to data compiled by the advocacy group Clean Label Project. The ingredient acts as a solvent, binding to caffeine in coffee beans so it can then be discarded. Advocates know what they’re doing. In 2018, they successfully used the same argument to force a ban of seven artificial flavors used in foods.

The effort to ban methylene chloride centers on a provision in the FDA’s food additive laws, known as the Delaney Clause, which states that “no additive shall be deemed to be safe if it is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or animal.” The provision has been a source of constant frustration for the food industry and even some FDA officials since its passage in 1958. Advocates say a similar situation is playing out with methylene chloride. The chemical is virtually undetectable in a brewed cup of decaf coffee, which is roasted at high temperatures after being decaffeinated. Advocates argue that banning the substance would actually harm consumers’ overall health and “deprive U.S. consumers of multiple documented health benefits associated with drinking decaffeinated coffee, including increased longevity and decreased risk of multiple cancers.”

The cancer risk linked to drinking decaf coffee is likely very low. The FDA estimated in 1985 that the risk of cancer for decaf drinkers was one in a million, though advocates maintain that that estimate is likely outdated. They note that the FDA considered a cup of coffee in that analysis to be just 5 ounces, which is less than half of a “tall” Starbucks cup, and just one-quarter the size of a “venti.” Advocates also argue that decaffeination of coffee puts those working in coffee factories at unnecessary risk, even if the ultimate consumer is likely pretty safe.

Methylene chloride has always been the solvent of choice to remove caffeine from green coffee, as written by a global coalition of decaf coffee companies in a recent letter to the FDA. It’s not the first time there’s been a push to ban the ingredient. In 1987, the advocacy group Public Citizen sued the FDA in an attempt to force a ban. The effort was thwarted when a judge ruled that the FDA was still considering the legality of the chemical and therefore couldn’t be sued at that time. In the decades since that ruling, methylene chloride has remained the most popular way to decaffeinate coffee.

Read More @ STAT

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