Coffee is one of my addictions. It's not that I drink it because I'm tired, it's that I drink it because it gives me motivation to go do or make stuff.
My brain is pretty wired naturally and caffeine gives me the stimulus I need to focus on one thing. Like a drug.
Coffee and capitalism
I can't find a link now but someone argued that every historical time had its own preferred mainstream drug and our current one is coffee because it works so well in a capitalist society. I drink a cup of coffee and I want to work. If I don't, my production goes down and long-term there's less work being produced. Capitalism doesn't like that.
That means if we want to escape our addiction to work, we may have to cut down on coffee. Or at least the most neuro-active compound in it: caffeine.
My coffee intake
I usually wake up around noon, then I drink my first cup of coffee. I then will drink another 2 cups. Totaling 3 per day. Sometimes 4 cups. A big cup of filter coffee is ~100mg of caffeine. so that's 300-400mg of caffeine per day. That's quite a lot since it's already near the recommended healthy limit.
Like lots of people, I'll even drink it late at night after dinner.
Now, the half-life of caffeine average is about 5 hours. But it can stay in your body for 8 to 14 hours. That means if your last coffee at 4pm in the afternoon, it can still be in your body at 6am in the morning.
Combine that with everyone being on computer and smartphone screens late into the night and it's no wonder we have a worldwide sleeplessness epidemic:
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has pointed to a 'global epidemic of sleeplessness'
If you can't fall asleep because your mind is racing, it might not just be your mind, it might also be the coffee. And it was for me.
My friend Marc said I should try switch to decaf as he did. So I bought decaf coffee.
It tasted worse, but not that much worse. It was okay.
I started switching to a mix of decaf and normal coffee. I'd have a single cup of regular caffeinated coffee. And then 2 decaf the rest of the day.
In the first week I didn't feel much but after a few weeks I started falling asleep considerably easier.
But have you heard of paint stripper?
Do you know the stuff they use to remove paint from walls? And the stuff we clean industrial factory floors with? It's an industrial solvent called methylene chloride. Stores have stopped selling it because it's so dangerous:
Public health organizations, including NRDC, had pushed for the ban of methylene chloride–based paint strippers, as the chemical has been linked to multiple deaths. Its fumes can cause liver toxicity, cancer, and harm to the nervous system—they can even trigger fatal heart attacks. More than 200,000 consumers petitioned for the ban, and advocates in 12 states also gathered outside Lowe’s stores to pressure the company to remove them from their shelves.
Why am I telling you this?
Well, the majority of decaf coffee is produced like this:
(..) coffee beans are soaked in hot water to extract much of the caffeine from the beans. 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.
We're using paint stripper to make most decaf coffee
Now to be valid, there's no real evidence methylene chloride has a harmful effects to humans in decaf coffee. The amounts left in the coffee are very tiny:
FDA regulation allows for up to 10 parts per million (ppm) of residual methylene chloride, but actual coffee-industry practice results in levels that are 100 times lower than this amount. During this decaffeination process, the coffee beans are soaked in hot water to extract much of the caffeine from the beans.
Then again, I don't like the idea that I'm drinking paint stripper.
I especially don't like that something I consume every day has this stuff in it. We know that most negative effects of compounds don't come from incidental use, but from repeated use as part of a lifestyle. I don't want chemical solvent to be part of my lifestyle.
And I'm not completely stupid to think that: before we used to make decaf coffee with benzene for decades, and many cups of decaf coffee consumed later we discovered it was harmful:
Since its inception, methods of decaffeination similar to those first developed by Roselius have continued to dominate. While Roselius used benzene, many different solvents have since been tried after the potential harmful effects of benzene were discovered.
Humans invent lots of stuff that decades later turns out to be a disaster, think asbestos or plastic.
So personally, I'd rather not take the risk and be drinking this.
I don't want to sound like a paranoid anti-scientific crazy person, but I think taking steps personally to minimize risks we might not know yet seems sane.
Better safe than sorry.
In search of decaf without chemical solvents
It didn't take me much Googling to find non-chemical alternatives. The most famous one is a process called Swiss Water:
Swiss Water is an innovative, 100% chemical free decaffeination process removing caffeine for coffee roasters around the world.
In this process, the coffee beans are soaked in caffeine-free green coffee extract, allowing the caffeine to be extracted from the bean and into the solution while the flavor components are retained in the beans. The now caffeine-saturated green coffee extract is then processed through activated charcoal to remove the caffeine, thus becoming caffeine-free again and ready to extract caffeine from a new batch of coffee. The coffee beans are then dried to their originating moisture level and re-bagged. The Swiss Water Process results in coffee that is 99.9% caffeine free.
Nice! I found solvent-free decaf coffee.
Yesterday I ordered my first bag of ground Swiss Water coffee. And today I made a cup:
The taste is much much much better than the methylene chlorinated decaf. It's a little weaker, so you have to use more ground powder to make a coffee. But still pretty good.
Ignore the text on the bag, it's imported and repackaged by a Korean importer.
There's one other decaf method that's not chemical: treating coffee with pressurized carbon dioxide. It's the least used method and reviews about the taste aren't that positive.
So why are most coffee producers like Illy and chains like Starbucks using the chemical solvent process? Because it's cheap. A decaf coffee at Starbucks is about the same price as a regular coffee.
The Swiss Water process is a lot more expensive. But I'm happy to pay for it knowing I'm not drinking paint stripper.
And best of all, now I can fall asleep a little better.
P.S. I'm on Twitter too if you'd like to follow more of my stories. And I wrote a book called MAKE about building startups without funding. See a list of my stories or contact me. To get an alert when I write a new blog post, you can subscribe below: