Officials Consider Requests to Ban or Label Some Decaf Coffee

3 min read

May 9, 2024 – Federal regulators recently put more limits on worker exposures to a chemical called methylene chloride, and there are calls for more actions that would regulate coffee products that are decaffeinated using the chemical.

Widely used in bathtub refinishing and paint stripping, methylene chloride is “known to cause liver cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, brain cancer, cancer of the blood, and cancer of the central nervous system, as well as neurotoxicity, liver harm and even death,” according to the EPA’s announcement of the new rules, which will broadly reduce or ban the use of methylene chloride for industrial and consumer purposes.

The chemical is also sometimes used to decaffeinate coffee. Methylene chloride was found in 10 of 24 tested decaf coffee products, according to a 2020 report from an activist organization called the Clean Label Project.

California lawmakers are considering a bill that could fine sellers of decaf coffee up to $10,000 for not disclosing that methylene chloride was used in the decaffeinating process. An earlier version of the proposed bill called for prohibiting the distribution or sale of coffee that was decaffeinated using methylene chloride, but a recent amendment was adopted that downgraded the requirement to clearly labeling the products as such.

Activist groups including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Environmental Working Group are calling on federal regulators to no longer allow methylene chloride as a food additive. The FDA is considering comments sent to the agency in response to a petition filed in December by the groups.

“It should be concerning to everyone that pregnant women and those with health issues looking to cut back on caffeine are unknowingly sipping trace amounts of methylene chloride in their decaf coffee,” Jaclyn Bowen, executive director of the Clean Label Project, said in a statement when the petition was filed. “FDA should prohibit methylene chloride, and companies should use safer available methods of decaffeination.”

The National Coffee Association counters the claims, stating that “the overwhelming weight of independent scientific evidence shows that drinking European Method decaf, like all coffee, is associated with numerous significant health benefits including increased longevity and decreased risk of multiple cancers.”

A summary of the topic from the coffee association says decaf using this method is safe, and it notes that the Clean Label Project tests were not independently verified and the reported levels are within FDA safety limits.

In a decaffeination process using methylene chloride, soaking coffee beans in hot water extracts caffeine, according to a description on the InterAmerican Coffee company’s website. 

“The beans are then removed from the water and the methylene chloride solvent is added to bond with the caffeine. After the methylene chloride/caffeine compound is skimmed from the surface of the mixture, the beans are returned to reabsorb the liquid. This method of decaffeination (sometimes called the KVW method in Europe) removes between 96 and 97 percent of caffeine from a batch of coffee,” the description states. “The methylene chloride process is thought by some in the coffee industry to maintain coffee flavor better than other processes.” 

FDA regulations allow 10 parts per million of residual methylene chloride, “but actual coffee-industry practice results in levels that are 100 times lower than this amount,” according to the summary from InterAmerican Coffee. The National Coffee Association says the FDA safety standard is equivalent to 10 drops of water in 10 gallons.