Starbucks, what’s in your coffee?

A pregnant woman walks into a Starbucks and is berated by the barista for buying a caffeinated coffee. There’s no punch line since this isn’t really a joke. My girlfriend did walk into a Vancouver Starbucks where the barista questioned her for ordering a coffee. And oh boy, what a coffee! It had caffeine in it!!! How dare she feed this stimulant to the tiny fetus growing inside her?

This got me thinking. Why was coffee the subject of discord for this barista? Is decaf coffee safer than caffeinated coffee? Has this barista ever read the ingredient list on Starbucks’ drink menu (or its food menu for that matter)? Would he also have scolded a very thirsty, pregnant woman who picked up a venti decaf White Chocolate Mocha with 510 calories, 330mg of sodium and a whopping 74g of sugar?

We are conditioned to think certain things are unhealthy, but sometimes we need to scratch the surface just a tad. I was mesmerized by this barista’s comment. I’m sure every pregnant woman has been at the receiving end of such unsolicited advice. I know I have. But what made our barista friend think that the caffeinated Starbucks coffee was the only thing in the coffee shop that presented a risk to her baby?

There are various ways to decaffeinate coffee. I contacted Starbucks to see which processes they use. Starbucks’ Decaf Sumatra is decaffeinated using a “natural decaffeination method” which “uses natural carbon dioxide and ultra-pure water to remove the caffeine from the green coffee beans.  The beans are then gently dried and cooled. In Canada, this process is known as ‘CO.’”

A second method for decaffeinating coffee is the “direct contact method of decaffeination”. According to Starbucks:

“[w]ith direct contact, a solvent (methylene chloride) is introduced to the green coffee beans as they soak.  The solvent bonds with the caffeine in the beans and removes it.  The solvent is then taken away from the beans and the coffee is roasted at over 400oF.  Since the solvent has a much lower boiling point (114oF) the coffee beans that come from this process produce a cup of coffee that has no detectable trace of methylene chloride.”

I had never heard of methylene chloride so I did some research. According to Health Canada (see s. 5.2), methylene chloride a.k.a. dichloromethane, is used as a solvent extraction in spices, teas and coffees, and has been found in various foods such as cereals, butter, cheese, margarine, processed foods and peanut butter.

An alternative to chemical processing is the Swiss water process. According to one company that uses this method, Swiss Water® Process, water “from the pristine environment of the coast mountains of British Columbia” is used “to gently remove the caffeine until the coffee beans are 99.9% caffeine-free, while maintaining the bean’s distinctive origin and flavor characteristics.” Bridgehead uses the Swiss water process to decaffeinate its coffees.

Since it seems that most decaffeinated coffee from Starbucks uses the direct contact method of decaffeination which involves the chemical methylene chloride, I wonder if the pregnant woman who walks into a Starbucks would be better off drinking a decaffeinated coffee. It’s not always about substance. It seems that how something is produced is just as important.

And what about their decaffeinated drinks? If a pregnant woman walked into a Starbucks and bought a grande Caramel Apple Spice (Without Whipped Cream) signature espresso drink would the barista bitterly berate her for consuming a decaffeinated drink that contains 65g of sugar? What would our barista friend have to say about a baby doing flip flops after being exposed to that much sugar?

Labels are important, and so is the way in which food is made. A label doesn’t often convey the processing method, which in my opinion, can be just as important about what the product contains. So next time a Starbucks barista wants to bemoan a pregnant mama for enjoying her one cup of coffee, he should spend a little more time informing himself about how the decaf coffee he serves came to be. There are also a lot of other things to be worrying about than a fetus being exposed to a cup of caffeinated coffee, like what will that baby be exposed to growing up in a world where, according to WWF, it takes 200 litres of water to make ONE latte.

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