Your Complete Guide to How Decaffeinated Tea is Produced

Your Complete Guide to How Decaffeinated Tea is Produced

Posted by Paul Gerst on Oct 23rd 2020

Your Complete Guide to How Decaffeinated Tea is Produced

Caffeine occurs naturally in tea. For tea to be considered decaffeinated, the caffeine has to be removed.   The tea industry uses 3 main methods to remove caffeine from tea leaves. Tea makers choose either the Carbon Dioxide, Ethyl Acetate or Methylene Chloride method. The method you prefer is a personal decision.

First, an important distinction. Decaffeinated tea and caffeine-free tea are not the same. Decaffeinated tea is made from actual tea leaves.   All of the caffeine can never be removed from tea leaves and a small amount of caffeine remains, usually under 2%.  

Meanwhile, caffeine-free teas are not made with actual tea leaves and do not contain any caffeine. The teas are herbal and include such varieties as chamomile, mint, hibiscus, rooibos and the like.   Herbal teas really are 100% caffeine-free because they are made with herbs, spices and similar items and do not contain any actual tea leaves.

In the US, federal regulations dictate that decaffeinated products must have less than 2.5% caffeine. Most decaffeinated teas contain less than this amount.

Tea is more delicate than coffee so caffeine removal has to be done with caution. Since tea companies do not put the decaffeination method on the package, it can be difficult to find out.   At teadog.com, we have obtained this information and included the decaffeination method for every tea we offer.  

Carbon Dioxide Method

The Carbon Dioxide, or CO2, method is used only by a few brands.   Clipper Tea, from England, is perhaps the best known proponent of the CO2 method. Clipper is one of the very rare tea makers to produce an organic and CO2 decaffeinated tea. Taylors of Harrogate uses it for their Decaf Breakfast, but not for their Yorkshire Decaf, and it is not organic.  

Actually, CO2 is the most natural of the three main decaffeination methods. Carbon Dioxide gives sparkling water its bubbles. Because CO2 is a naturally occurring element, it is the most ecologically-friendly method because no chemical solvents are used. But it is more expensive to decaffeinate teas with this method. Tea makers that use CO2 believe the method best maintains the natural flavor of tea. It is not the most popular decaffeination method, partly because of the cost.

In this method, tea leaves are combined with CO2 and brought to high temperature and high pressure.   At this point, caffeine molecules in the tea become attracted to the CO2 and then removed. Caffeine molecules are small and flavor molecules are larger, which means the tea taste remains. For this reason, CO2 decaffeinated teas are believed to have the best tea flavor.

Ethyl Acetate Method

Next, the ethyl acetate method is used by such brands as Builders Tea, Thompsons Tea and Twinings. Often, teas decaffeinated using ethyl acetate are called naturally decaffeinated. The term is used because ethyl acetate is naturally found in many fruits. But, it is also used in nail polish remover among other items. Although it does occur naturally, the ethyl acetate used to decaffeinated tea is chemically manufactured.    

Is the ethyl acetate process actually natural?   You need to judge for yourself. The actual ethyl acetate decaffeination method is the same as used in methylene chloride.

Methylene Chloride Method

The final decaffeination process uses methylene chloride. Also known as dichloromethane, methylene chloride is the most controversial decaffeination method. Some countries do not allow teas to be decaffeinated with this process. Whether you consider it to be safe is an individual decision.  

In addition to being used to decaffeinate tea, methylene chloride is used in industrial processes, such as paint stripping, pharmaceutical manufacturing, paint remover manufacturing, metal cleaning and degreasing, adhesives manufacturing, and polyurethane foam production.  

In the UK, for example, methylene chloride is by far the most popular method and used in 99% of decaffeinated teas, according to Infre, a Swiss firm that patented this process and is the main supplier of decaf tea to the British market.  

The Methylene Chloride process is used by brands like Bewleys, Barrys, King Cole, Marks & Spencer, Miles Tea, PG Tips, Ringtons, Typhoo, Yorkshire and Welsh Brew. In this method, the tea leaves are submerged in methylene chloride. The caffeine molecules bond to the chemical and are removed. Then, the flavors and oils in the water are returned to the tea.  

Proponents of methylene chloride believe it offers the best taste and maintains more of the original tea flavor than other methods. Proponents also believe it is safe since almost all of the methylene chloride is removed during the decaffeination process.  

European Union rules require traces of methylene chloride in decaffeinated tea to be under 5 parts per million. Most British tea makers have levels of 3 parts per million, which translates to 0.0004005794137133 ounces per gallon. Some British tea makers have levels of 2 parts per million.

According to Berkeley Wellness of the University of California, no evidence exists of any dangers to humans drinking tea decaffeinated with the methylene chloride process.

Additionally, methylene chloride becomes a gas at 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Since tea is prepared with boiling water at 212 degrees Fahrenheit any remaining traces of methylene chloride evaporate.

Many myths surround the methylene chloride method. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved it for use in decaffeination.   FDA rules limit methylene chloride to less than 10 parts per million, which is .001% of the final product. This translates to .008 of an ounce in a 8 ounce cup of tea. The FDA states that methylene chloride can be present under specific conditions (click on image above).

Become An Educated Tea Drinker

Finally, you may have read about the Swiss Water method or water process for decaffeination. But this is not commonly used with tea and is associated more with coffee. In the process, water is used to remove the caffeine. Today, only a small amount of tea is used with this process. A common complaint about this method is that tea tastes watered down.  

Most British and Irish tea brands have a range of teas. These brands blend tea from different regions to produce a specific taste. But most brands of tea only have a single decaf tea.

"Become an educated and drink tea that has been decaffeinated with the process you feel is safe. At teadog.com, we want to help you become an educated tea drinker, which is why we list the method used for each decaffeinated tea we carry."

Paul Gerst, founder, teadog.com

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