The many health benefits of drinking tea are being discovered all the time. However, normal black and green teas are caffeinated. So if you want to reduce or cut out caffeine altogether, should you choose decaffeinated tea or naturally caffeine free? Read on for the low-down.
What is caffeine?
Caffeine is a natural chemical found in certain plants, most notably in coffee, cacao and of course black, green and white teas. Whilst tolerable in small quantities, too high a caffeine intake can affect blood pressure and heart health, and can contribute to insomnia as well as anxiety, palpitations and tremors. Because, it is a natural compound, the amount of caffeine in each plant can vary enormously.
Coffee generally has the most milligrams of caffeine, but different types of tea, whether black or oolong tea, green or white tea, can contain varying levels depending on where it was grown and how it was picked and processed. Some black teas might even have more caffeine than some weaker coffees. Green tea generally has less than black teas, but again there might be quite a lot of overlap at the upper end of the green tea caffeine scale. This means that if you're drinking tea it can be very difficult to gauge exactly how much caffeine you are consuming in a day.
Decaffeinated tea vs Caffeine free teaIf you are trying to cut down on caffeine in tea, the best way is to substitute regular tea with either decaf tea or naturally caffeine free. But is there a difference? The answer is absolutely, yes.
Decaf tea means that the black or green tea leaves have undergone a decaffeination process to remove the caffeine molecules. Conversely, ‘caffeine free’ means the plant never actually contained caffeine in the first place; it was simply not in it’s genetic make-up. This means that the leaves undergo little processing and will not contain any trace caffeine. Naturally caffeine free would always be our preference when cutting down on caffeine.
How is tea decaffeinated?
There are different decaffeination methods that are used for tea, and it is worth asking which one was used if you are drinking decaf tea. All decaf teas are not the same! Here is an outline of the main techniques:
Methylene chlorideIn this method, the tea leaves are soaked in a chemical solvent called methylene chloride which bonds with the caffeine molecules. The chemical is then separated out taking much of the caffeine with it. Unfortunately, it is not possible to remove all of it and so a chemical residue can be left on the leaves. This method is controversial as methylene chloride is widely considered not safe for consumption.
Again the tea leaves are soaked, this time in ethyl acetate (also used in nail polish remover!). On the plus side, this is actually a chemical already present in tea leaves. On the negative side, again a chemical residue is left as the chemical can’t be entirely removed, and this leaves the tea with a bitter taste. It also destroys many of the health benefits, as it removes the ‘polyphenols’, special tea antioxidants which help fight free radicals and boost the body’s defence and renewal mechanisms.
This is more closely associated with coffee decaffeination. The leaves are soaked in hot water, and then put through a carbon filter which extracts the caffeine molecules. The water is then added back to the leaves. Whilst considered relatively safe, much of the flavour is also removed and teas using this process can be weak and bland.
Probably the most natural method of decaffeination. Tea leaves are mixed with liquid carbon dioxide with high pressure and temperature. At a certain point the carbon dioxide turns into a solvent and captures the caffeine molecules only. With this method, more of the beneficial compounds are left intact, and the flavour is better than the other methods, although it will never be as good as a normal black or green tea.
Are decaffeinated teas bad for you?
The downside of decaffeination is that if you are sensitive to caffeine and its side effects, you will still be consuming some caffeine. This is because it is virtually impossible to remove all the caffeine, often around 2.5% of the original caffeine content will remain. Additionally, most of the processes use some pretty potent chemical solvents, many of which can’t be entirely removed either. And finally, the extra processing can hugely effect the flavour and also the antioxidant health benefits of the tea, surely the reasons you wanted to drink tea in the first place!
Naturally caffeine free teas
Teas which are naturally caffeine free don’t undergo any chemical processing at all, making them a great option if you are cutting down on caffeine. There are no trace chemical solvents, they are full of all the antioxidant goodness of the leaf itself and the flavour is intact. You won’t be compromising on anything.
Rooibos in particular is a great alternative to caffeinated black teas with its rich and smooth taste. You can drink it with or without milk and plant milks, make it as strong as you like and even leave the teabag in as it will not go bitter. You also won’t have any of that pesky scum in your mug that you get with black tea. Just a lovely clean brew.
Rooibos, the 'Wonder plant'
With zero caffeine, low tannins and high antioxidants, including a polyphenol called Aspalathin which is only found in rooibos, there is increasing evidence of the wide-ranging benefits of this so-called wonder plant. Studies have shown rooibos can contribute to cardiovascular health, may stabilise glucose (so important for diabetics) as well as having a positive effect on cognitive and brain function, recovery after exercise, and even weight loss!
Tick Tock rooibos tea
At Tick Tock, we have a rooibos to suit all tastes, whether it’s our classic Earl Grey Rooibos scented with bergamot oil (naturally caffeine free of course), or our much-loved velvety Vanilla, a deliciously indulgent and guilt-free treat.
And have you tried our Tick Tock Green rooibos? Lighter and fresher than normal red rooibos thanks to the way it is prepared after harvesting, it makes for a great alternative to normal green tea (which contains caffeine) and is brimming with rooibos goodness. What’s not to love?!
[Reviewed and updated October 2022]