/ Food & Drink

National Tea Day: why is it so hard to find decaf options?

Today is National Tea Day and some of you may be partaking in a cup or two or even having an afternoon tea treat. But if you’re caffeine intolerant, indulging in this most English of traditions can, quite literally, be a headache, says our guest, community member Beryl…

It’s National Tea Day, so to mark it, I would like to propose a toast to all those who still associate this delightful ‘pick-me-up’ drink with a good old English tradition and prefer it to coffee and the coffee bars that go with it.

However, it has been widely established that this ‘pick-me-up’ can be attributed to caffeine – ­a substance that if taken in excess can cause symptoms, such as tremors and migraine, in a few susceptible people. These folk invariably have to turn to decaffeinated drinks as an alternative.

But this is not without its social problems, especially when invited to coffee mornings with friends who can only offer caffeinated tea or coffee. When this happens, one is inclined to either decline the invitation, or accept and suffer the inevitable consequences.

You’re met with the same problem in other situations, too. Drinks machines are now appearing in supermarkets, petrol stations and smaller retail outlets, but most only contain caffeinated beverages. Also, to my utmost surprise, during a recent short stay in an NHS hospital, the ward drinks trolley could only offer caffeinated hot drinks.

A healthy choice?

One would expect decaf to be easier on the body, but decaf tea leaves are often soaked in methylene chloride, which bonds with the caffeine molecules. It’s widely considered that this renders the tea unfit for consumption, as it leaves traces of the compound on the tea leaves.

A safer and preferred option is hot water processing. This extracts the caffeine along with almost everything else. The water is filtered through a carbon filter, which catches the caffeine molecules. It is then returned to the tea leaves, which soak up the extracted flavours. This process may explain and be the reason why you usually have to pay more when buying decaffeinated produce.

According to tea makers, by law, decaffeinated tea must contain less than 2.5% of its original caffeine. But due to this and the above limitations in its processing, no decaf tea is actually totally caffeine free. However, it’s presumably low enough to reduce the effects experienced by people sensitised to it.

Whatever your choices, as with most food products containing legalised and potentially harmful substances, moderation is key to be able to enjoy their benefits without repercussions.

So when you raise your tea cup this afternoon, please spare a thought for those whose health could be put in jeopardy by indulging in something as innocent looking as a caffeinated cuppa.

This is a guest post by community member Beryl. All views expressed here are Beryl’s and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.

Do you have to avoid caffeine for health reasons? Do you find it hard to find decaf options? What are your tips for surviving in a caffeine-dominated world?


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Congratulations on your Convo Beryl 🙂 and highlighting the problems decaf drinkers are faced with.

We have both caffeinated and decaffeinated tea and coffee in our house. Hubby was told to have decaf for health reasons.

He doesn’t drink tea out, but I don’t remember ever seeing decaf tea on offer whereas decaf coffee is widely available.

Why is decaf often twice the price of caffeinated? Okay, it needs additional processing, but for many brands you almost need twice as much tea to get any flavour. He keeps switching brands, but has stuck with Yorkshire Tea Decaf for quite a while now as it seems to be the strongest.

As to how it is processed into decaf……….? 🤔

Where I work, both tea and coffee are still popular as workplace refreshments, but so too is cool filtered water.

I’m trying to drink more water, instead of tea or coffee. This is purely because I put sugar in both and would like to cut down.

As the days are getting hotter I find it easier to drink water!

What’s your preferred drink?

Thanks for the Convo, Beryl. In the manufacture of decaffeinated coffee, the use of methylene chloride (dichloromethane) to extract caffeine has I believe been phased out in favour of liquid carbon dioxide, which avoids the risk of potentially hazardous chemical residues. I hope the same applies with tea.

I am not impressed by the decaffeinated coffee I have tasted, which usually seems bitter and lacks flavour. I am staying with friends and have accidentally been drinking decaffeinated coffee. 🙁 I will try decaffeinated tea out of interest.

You might want to find yourself some caffeine if you want to avoid getting withdrawal headaches wavechange?

I’m afraid we call it decoffinated, for the reasons wavechange describes. Perhaps it is better to drink the real unaltered beverage, but in moderation if you are susceptible to caffeine.

Alfa mentions headache caused by withdrawal of caffeine, and drinks containing caffeine can cause headaches in others. I’m lucky and don’t have either problem. I wonder why some are affected and not others.

It must depend on individuals, Beryl. I tend to drink a lot of coffee when I’m at home but when I’m on holiday I often drink very little. I very rarely get headaches, though having had four very unpleasant migraines in my early 20s I have the greatest sympathy for regular sufferers. I don’t know if there is any relation but drinking alcohol does never gives me a headache either.

I drink coffee because I enjoy it, though in hot weather I prefer tea.

I suspect we could have an interesting discussion on individual differences and autoimmune disease but as you say that would be off-topic, Beryl. 🙁

I gave up caffeinated tea 6 years ago on my first pregnancy and I rarely drink it now. I prefer rooibos (red bush tea), which is naturally caffeine free and therefore doesn’t require any decaffeination process. My brew of choice is Dragonfly Tea Earl Grey. But it is difficult to find it when out and about. But if you ask they often have it, just not on show. And, I concur, you can’t get it in NHS hospitals. Not even on the maternity/postnatal wards!

I put the kettle on when ever I want. I’ve never actually felt any caffeine rush, addiction, or indeed any effect except the enjoyment of a pleasant drink that’s good to come home to. I like Earl Grey, but usually stick to a Fair Trade brand. I have a tea pot and strainer for posh occasions, but usually slum it with a tea bag. Tea is just one drink in many for me, there is nothing extraordinary about it except its diuretic properties if over indulged after a second mug.

Decaf teabags are common. Try finding decaf loose tea.

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