Between the Leaves March 2008

Hey Mary, what gives? In your January article on decaffeinated teas you totally ignored do-it-yourself decaf. A quick first infusion will remove practically all of the caffeine and leave all the good stuff-are you building an empire of decaffeination or something?

Yes, and I would have gotten away with it too, if it hasn't been for you meddling kids!

Scooby-isms aside, good catch! I did indeed purposely omit self-decaffeination techniques from that article, but not because of my nefarious designs on the US tea industry. The real reason is much less exciting: January's querist was primarily concerned with chemical residue remaining on commercially prepared decaffeinated teas. I simply thought it prudent to limit my response to that concern. Besides, self-decaffeination deserves a spotlight all of its very own.

Several Infusions
Several Infusions

As you are aware, it has been popularly reported that anywhere between 80-100% of the caffeine in tea is removed from the leaves within the first 30-45 seconds of the first infusion. The logic goes that if you remove the leaves from that first infusion after the 30-40 seconds and re-infuse the leaves, you'll have a good-tasting, naturally decaffeinated cup of tea. Many high-profile doctors and tea experts have published this process as a fact. In his September 18, 2006 column for Time Magazine, Dr. Andrew Weil promoted the method and gave the basic instructions of "Pour boiling water over loose (green) tea, let sit for 45 seconds, and pour water off. Then brew the tea normally". Dr. Weil continued by stating that "Flavor and polyphenol content will be unaffected". More recently, Mark 'Dr. Tea' Ukra highlighted the practice in his popular 2008 book, The Ultimate Tea Diet, where he emphatically states that "the caffeine virtually disappears after the first steep"(Ukra 29) then recommends that you simply "pour that liquid down the drain" or "use it to water your plants"(Ukra 29).

Unfortunately, neither Dr. Weil nor Mr. Ukra offers any direction to a peer-reviewed scientific journal to validate these statements. When these journals are consulted, however, they do not present the necessary evidence to support the claim. A 1996 article in Food Research International describes an experiment in which 6 different teas (bagged and loose varieties of black, oolong, and green) were steeped in boiling water for 5 minutes. The same leaves were then used to produce two more 5-minute infusions. The researchers found that the average percentage of caffeine removed after the initial five minute infusion was only 69%-a far cry from the 97% removal required to label a product as 'decaffeinated'. The average removal in the two subsequent infusions was 23% and 8% respectively. What this basically means is that to really decaffeinate your tea, you would have to have a first infusion time of around 15 minutes and by then both flavor and polyphenol content will be very much affected by that point.

Though many health celebrities may swear that tea becomes decaffeinated after a quick first infusion, the science just doesn't back up their claims. Unfortunately, the celebrities continue to spread this misinformation andget away with it.

The world needs more meddling kids like you. Thanks for writing.


Hicks, M.B., Hsieh, P., & Bell, L.N. "Tea preparation and its influence on methylxanthine concentration". Food Research International 29 (1996), 325-330.

Ukra, Mark. The Ultimate TEA Diet New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

Weil, Dr. Andrew. " Ask Dr. Weil: September 18, 2006" Time Magazine. Retrieved February 3, 2008 from the World Wide Web: http://www.time.com/time/question/dr_weil_060918.html