Can Pregnant Women Drink Decaf Coffee or Tea? Is It Safe?

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Written by Gina Wagg BA, Dip.

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If you’re pregnant, you may already be aware that you should limit your caffeine intake during pregnancy to 200 milligrams per day (source: APA) up to a maximum of 300mg, according to the World Health Organization.

This is because your ability to metabolize caffeine slows down, and caffeine also crosses the placenta (source: WHO).

Many pregnant women turn to decaffeinated coffee and tea so that they can still enjoy the taste of their favorite drinks, but without the caffeine. But are they safe?

Decaf coffee and tea are safe to drink during pregnancy, but be aware that even decaffeinated beverages contain a small amount of caffeine. The amount you can drink per day when pregnant depends on the type of tea or coffee and the process used to remove the caffeine.

I’ve put together a table of average residual caffeine amounts that are found in many popular types of decaf drinks. Plus I investigate the safety of the chemicals used to produce decaf.

How Much Caffeine Is In Decaf Coffee and Tea?

In most countries, in order for a product to be labeled “decaf”, it has to have most, but not all of the caffeine removed.

In the US, the USDA state that decaffeinated coffee should not contain more than 0.1% caffeine (source: USDA).

This 0.1% is the same in Europe for roasted or ground coffee, though EU regulations allow up to 0.3% caffeine in soluble (instant) decaf coffee.

The Swiss Water Process can remove up to 99.9% of caffeine content (source: SWP).

decaf espresso

Using a percentage still means that the residual caffeine can vary, depending on how much was in the tea leaves or coffee beans to start with, and which process was used to remove the caffeine.

The upshot of all this is that you can’t be absolutely certain how much caffeine is in your cup of decaf (just like you can’t tell how much caffeine is in a regular cup), but you can make a good estimate.

Most decaf beverages that have been tested fall within an “expected range” of caffeine levels.

I’ve used various reliable sources to produce the table below, which estimates how much caffeine remains in many popular decaf drinks. Even if your favorite brand isn’t listed, it should give you an estimate of how much caffeine remains in many types of tea and coffee.

Decaf BrandServing SizeCaffeine Content (average range)
Generic brewed decaf coffee8 fl oz / 236ml2 – 15 mg
Generic instant / soluble decaf coffee8 fl oz / 236ml2.5 – 3.8 mg
Generic Swiss Water Process decaf12 fl oz / 355ml2 mg
Starbucks decaf coffee (brewed / filter) ‘Grande’ Size16 fl oz / 472ml12 – 25 mg
Starbucks decaf coffee (espresso based)Per espresso shot3 – 15.8 mg per shot
K – Cup (pods) decaf8 fl oz / 236ml cup2 – 4 mg
Nespresso Decaf CapsulesPer Capsule2 mg
Peet’s (espresso based) decafPer espresso shot10 mg
Waka Instant decaf8 fl oz / 236ml4 mg
The Big Bean (brewed / filter) decaf16 fl oz / 472ml10.1 – 10.6 mg
Dunkin’ Donuts (brewed / filter) decaf16 fl oz / 472 ml10.1 mg
Krispy Kreme (brewed / filter) decaf16 fl oz / 472ml13.9 mg
McDonald’s decaf (brewed / filter)16 fl oz / 472ml11.5 mg
Lipton decaf tea8 fl oz / 236ml5 mg
Generic decaf black tea (e.g. Earl Grey)8 fl oz / 236ml2 – 6 mg
Generic decaf Green tea 8 fl oz / 236 ml1 – 4 mg
Sources: FDA, Caffeine Informer, Journal of Analytic Toxicology

How Many Cups of Decaf Coffee or Tea Can I Drink While Pregnant?

You should use the table above to work out how much caffeine you might be consuming in decaf tea or coffee, and then adding up an estimated daily total.

When pregnant you should keep caffeine intake to below 300mg / day (and ideally, lower than that at 200mg).

This means that if you weren’t taking caffeine in any other form, it would work out at a rough maximum of ten decaf coffees a day, of the strongest type (decaf espresso-based drinks, with double shots).

If the drink is weaker (for example, a generic filter decaf or decaffeinated green tea), then you might be able to drink more cups than this, but that’s an awful lot of the same thing. You’d probably be better varying the ways you hydrate – for ideas on this, here are ten drinks you can enjoy when pregnant.

Bear in mind that caffeine is also found in energy drinks, sports drinks, soft drinks, some medicines such as flu remedies, and is also in some food, like chocolate. There’s a dedicated guide here if you need to know how much caffeine is in chocolate.

Overall, it’s difficult to drink enough decaf to get into any ‘unsafe zone’ with caffeine during pregnancy, but if decaf tea or coffee is your go-to drink during pregnancy, you should keep an eye on how much caffeine you’re consuming.

decaf coffee beans

Is Decaf Safe During Pregnancy? What About the Chemicals Used?

Caffeine is removed from tea and coffee in one of several ways:

  • By using chemical solvents
  • By using water processing
  • By using carbon dioxide and carbon filters

The last two are often referred to as ‘natural’ or sometimes ‘organic’ processes depending on the exact steps. However, this usually means the coffee is more expensive to produce.

Because caffeine is often removed using chemical processes, there’s a question mark over whether or not there are residual chemicals in decaf products that could potentially be harmful to health, including that of pregnant women and their babies.

During the decaffeination process, green coffee beans (or tea leaves) are washed with water, which dissolves the caffeine. Then, a solvent is mixed in to bind with the caffeine and is rinsed off. Very often the beans or leaves are steamed to remove any more solvent and to retain flavor (source: Scientific American).

The two most common chemical solvents used are Ethyl Acetate and Methylene Chloride.

Ethyl Acetate is an additive approved as safe for use in many foods, not just decaf tea and coffee (source: FDA). It also occurs naturally in foods such as wine, blue cheese, beer, pineapples, and kiwis, among others (source: PubChem).

The one that causes more concern is Methylene Chloride. This is more commonly used in Europe, but is also approved as a food additive in the US, as it’s used for processing spices, hops, and coffee. In coffee, the FDA stipulates that trace levels should not exceed 10 ppm, or parts per million (Source: FDA).

Methylene Chloride may be carcinogenic, as suggested by several different animal trials (source: USDA Agency for Toxic Substances). An old 1991 study looked at whether Methylene Chloride exposure had an effect on the birth weight of babies, but it was inconclusive (source: Journal of Environmental Research).

It’s worth mentioning that any amount of solvent that remains after decaffeination is very small (source: BBC). There is no recommendation in any country that pregnant women need to avoid decaf coffee or tea that has been processed with a chemical solvent.

Also, to date, there are no recent or conclusive human studies that look at the impact of Methylene Chloride on health. However, many pregnant women prefer to avoid tea or coffee decaffeinated with Methylene Chloride in particular due to its status as a potential carcinogen.

decaf tea in a cup

Which Brands of Decaf Are Safer For Pregnant Women?

It’s understandable if you’d prefer to drink decaf coffee or tea that hasn’t been chemically processed, for the reasons given above.

However, the problem is that many decaf coffee and tea manufacturers (and coffee shops) don’t state which decaf process they’ve used.

You have two options – you can either:

  • Use decaf brands that have been tested to have minimal residual solvents, well below the recommended amounts, or
  • Choose decaf that has been processed with water or CO2 rather than chemicals.

For the first option, you can check which brands tested positive for fewer Methylene Chloride residues during a study conducted by the Clean Label Project.

Brands that are solvent-processed but had minimal residues when tested include:

  • Allegro Organic French Roast decaf
  • Archer Farms decaf House Blend
  • Caribou Decaf Blend
  • Community Coffee Decaffeinated Cafe Special
  • DAZBOG Decaf French Roast
  • Dunkin’ Donuts Decaf Medium Roast
  • Folger’s Decaf Classic
  • Illy Decaffeinated Blend
  • Kicking Horse Decaf (Dark)
  • Nescafe Decaf House Blend
  • Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend Decaf
  • Starbucks Decaf (House Blend, Caffe Verona)
  • The Organic Coffee Co Decaf (Organic Gorilla blend)
  • Tim Horton’s Medium Roast Decaf

Source: CLP

The other alternative is to choose decaf brands available that use more ‘natural’ methods, if you’re prepared to pay a bit more for your decaf tea or coffee. These are covered below.

Is Swiss Water Processed Decaf Safe During Pregnancy?

The most popular decaffeination process that does not use chemicals is water processing. There are several types of water processing, the most well-known one is the Swiss Water Process.

Green coffee beans (or tea leaves) are continually washed with a proprietary extract, and the caffeine is removed through carbon filtration. This is often referred to as a ‘natural’ decaffeination because it’s chemical-solvent free.

The Swiss Water Process also removes more caffeine than many other methods, with 99.9% of the caffeine removed during the process (source: Swiss Water Process).

Coffee that has been decaffeinated with this process will very often have the Swiss Water® logo on the packet, if that’s the method used. If another, non-proprietary method is used, it may just say “water processed”.

If you’re not making the coffee yourself, then ask which method has been used.

In general, water processed decaf coffee, including Swiss Water Processed, is safe during pregnancy, as it’s produced without solvents and there is very little residual caffeine left in beans processed with this method.

The types of water processing used can vary from brand to brand, so there’s no definitive list.

One of the most popular decaf products during pregnancy is Mommee Coffee (see the range on Amazon) which was developed with pregnant women in mind.

Mommee Coffee is a water processed decaf coffee that is also low-acid, so it’s designed to be gentler on the stomach than other blends. It’s available in decaf, half caf or quarter caffeine so if you still want some caffeine, but not a full dose, it might be something to consider.

decaf coffee beans a cup

Can I Drink Decaf Coffee or Tea In The First Trimester / Early Pregnancy?

At present, no distinction is made between the trimesters of pregnancy when it comes to caffeine consumption – the advice is to avoid or lower your caffeine intake “throughout pregnancy”.

To date, there are no conclusive studies to suggest whether caffeine has more of an effect in early pregnancy (the first trimester).

High caffeine consumption has been linked to longer gestation times and lower birth weights (source: BMC), but studies looked a the whole pregnancy term, rather than early pregnancy.

If you’re particularly worried about the effects of caffeine during pregnancy, you could avoid it during the first trimester and then stick to the recommended levels or below, though this is a personal choice and hasn’t been recommended by any governmental or scientific body.

Can Decaffineated Coffee or Tea Cause Miscarriage?

Some scientific studies suggest that there is a link between miscarriage and high caffeine intake (above the recommended amounts of 200-300mg/day) (sources: American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Journal of Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology).

Other studies have struggled to establish such a link (Source: Journal of Fertility and Sterility).

However, what these studies do have in common is that any risk is usually associated with a high level of caffeine consumption during pregnancy.

Because decaffeinated coffee (particularly water processed decaf) is so low in caffeine, it’s very unlikely that decaf coffee or tea will cause miscarriage.

It’s also unlikely that most women would drink enough decaf in a day to reach anywhere near the recommended daily upper limits of 200 – 300 milligrams of caffeine.

Decaf processed by solvents or chemicals has not, to date, been linked with any risk of miscarriage either, though it’s a personal choice if you wish to avoid this type of decaf.

Overall, if you choose to drink tea or coffee during pregnancy, try to stick to low levels of caffeine. The best choice for this would be water-processed decaf tea or coffee. You can still enjoy the taste, without 99.9% of the caffeine usually found in regular tea or coffee.

Also, be mindful that coffee and tea are not the only sources of caffeine, and keep tabs on how much you might be consuming throughout your pregnancy.

When choosing how to hydrate during pregnancy, you may also like: