Taking the Steam Out of Decaf
New research shows low-octane coffee may increase risk of arthritis
WEDNESDAY, Nov. 28, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Attention, female coffee lovers.
Before you take another swig of what you think is guilt-free decaf, there's something you should know: New research shows this otherwise mild-mannered beverage may increase your risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a painful auto-immune disorder that attacks the joints.
According to a recent presentation at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology, doctors from the University of Alabama at Birmingham revealed that women who drink at least four cups of decaffeinated coffee a day are more than twice as likely to develop RA. Drinking regular coffee had no relationship to the disease.
"Right now, there appears to be only an association between RA and decaffeinated coffee. But the evidence is pretty convincing thus far that there could be a real link between the two," says lead author Dr. Ted Mikuls, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Although past studies have linked coffee and RA, this is the first study to separate the effects of caffeinated coffee from decaffeinated.
"Women who drank regular coffee did not have the increased risk of RA -- so it seems as if there is something about the decaffeinated coffee that is increasing the risks," says Mikuls.
That "something" is probably the chemicals used in the decaffeinating process, according to Dr. Eric Braverman, an integrated physician and RA expert.
"For many years, making decaffeinated coffee involved the use of some potent chemical solvents, some which may still be in use today," Braverman explains.
Over time, he says, these chemical residues build in the body, taxing the immune system. Eventually, he adds, that continual assault may be what leads to a variety of autoimmune diseases, including RA.
Because the study began in the 1980s -- and doctors don't know how long before that the women had been drinking decaffeinated coffee -- Mikuls concedes it is entirely possible that chemical residues from the decaffeinated process could indeed have played a role.
"We just don't know what was behind the finding; all we can say right now is there appears to be an association between the amount of decaffeinated coffee the women in this study drank, and an increase in RA," says Mikuls.
In addition to this finding, Mikuls' group also looked at tea consumption and the risk of RA, and herein lies perhaps an even more intriguing finding.
Although Mikuls' study determined that tea drinking reduced the risk of RA in women, another study presented at the same conference found the opposite was true, at least in black women.
In that study, a group of Boston researchers analyzed data on 64,000 black women and found that tea, as well as decaffeinated coffee shared an equal link to RA. Mikuls says he doesn't understand the reason for the conflicting finding about tea.
"We discussed this at the conference, and we really can't find a reason except to say that neither study broke down the tea by type -- herbal, regular or decaffeinated -- which could have accounted for the difference, and second, that there may be some individual lifestyle or health factors that may have played a role in the finding. But right now, we just don't know," Mikuls says.
In the University of Alabama study, Mikuls pulled data on 32,000 women between the ages of 55 and 69 from the Iowa Women's Health Study. A major research project started in 1986, women in the Iowa study were asked to report a variety of health and lifestyle factors, including their tea and coffee consumption.
Through 1997, the researchers pinpointed how many women in the study were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
After analyzing the data, Mikuls and his group reported that, when compared to those who did not use decaffeinated coffee, women who drank at least four cups a day were more than twice as likely to develop RA.
Tthe study also found that regular coffee had no impact on incidence of rheumatoid arthritis, and that tea actually had a protective effect: Mikuls reports that women who drank more than three cups of tea a day had a 60 percent reduction in their risk of RA.
"Clearly, a more detailed study is needed on both decaffeinated coffee and tea before any solid conclusions can be drawn," says Mikuls.
What To Do
Based on the data presented so far, Mikuls believes there is no cause for alarm and no need to limit the use of decaffeinated coffee.
"Right now, there is only an association between RA and decaffeinated coffee, and there is a long way to go before it becomes a positive link," he says.
Braverman, however, disagrees, saying decaf is not a good beverage for anyone, regardless of any links to RA.
"Decaffeinated coffee should only be used as a way to give up caffeinated coffee; it should never be the beverage of choice on its own as long as there is a question concerning the chemicals used in the process," says Braverman.
Although most coffee makers today use a safer, Swiss water process to decaffeinate coffee and not the chemical solvents used in the past, Braverman still believes the risk is not worth taking, particularly if you aren't 100 percent sure of how your coffee is made.
To learn more about how coffee is decaffeinated, click here,
To learn more about rheumatoid arthritis, visit the Rheumatoid Arthritis Information Network.
You can also learn more about RA from the Arthritis Foundation information page, found here.
Curious about how decaf is made? Check out this fact sheet from INeedCoffee.