Question: Do you happen to know which brand or brands of decaffeinated coffee are made without formaldehyde or other chemicals?--L.D.
Answer: "Formaldehyde"? I haven't run across formaldehyde since my high school zoology days and a much maligned and battered frog named Sid.
We can put your mind at an immediate rest on one point, however-- no brand of decaffeinated coffee is made with formaldehyde, according to Bill Brooks, a spokesman in New York for the National Coffee Assn.
Error Was Corrected
How this idea got into circulation, Brooks said, goes back to a syndicated medical column published last year in which formaldehyde was erroneously cited as one of the chemicals used in the decaffeination of coffee. Never mind that the doctor-author, in short order, corrected the error--the idea had been planted, and who reads corrections?
As Americans have become more sensitive about the link between caffeine and jangled nerves and/or sleeplessness, decaffeinated coffee has gone from a novelty item a few short years ago to about 23% of the entire coffee market today, Brooks added, but it is virtually impossible to buy any decaffeinated coffee that hasn't been subjected to some chemical.
"But," he pointed out, "it's also virtually impossible to buy any food that doesn't have chemicals in it. We're all made of chemicals. Ethyl acetate, which sounds pretty horrible and is used in some decaffeination, is a prime ingredient in bananas, for instance."
As far as health considerations are concerned, Brooks continued, it is important to remember that both ethyl acetate and the far more common methylene chloride (which accounts for the majority of the decaffeination in the United States) have been studied six ways from Sunday by the Food and Drug Administration and--without any qualifications--have been found safe.
"Actually," he added, "most of the coffee treated in the country is decaffeinated with just plain water, but since water takes out almost all of the flavor elements, the water itself is then treated with, usually, methylene chloride, which in effect restores most of the taste, and then this is reapplied to the beans."
The so-called "Swiss-water-processed" decaffeinated coffee (not generally used in the United States) isn't as chemical-free as it sounds, because the water used in the procedure is filtered through activated charcoal and is also reapplied to the beans.
"But most coffee drinkers," Brooks said, "feel that it virtually wipes out the coffee taste."
In the eyes of the FDA, though, how "safe" is safe?
"The level of methylene chloride permitted by the FDA," Brooks said, "is a residue of 10 parts per million. But most of the decaffeinated coffee produced in the United States has a residue of a fraction of 1 part per million. And, remember, that's for the jar, not the cup. Consumer's Union ran a study of decaffeinated coffee recently, bought random samples of coffee off the shelf, had them analyzed and couldn't even find a trace of methylene chloride in the cups. This is a highly volatile chemical, and when it's exposed to hot water that's what happens--detection devices can't even pick up a trace of it."
Rats and mice also got into the act with the FDA's study of methylene chloride, Brooks added, and were fed daily with water laced with the amount of methylene chloride to be found in 6 million cups of decaffeinated coffee throughout their lives without any carcinogenic effect. Whether they had a funny taste in their mouths, however, wasn't noted.
The controversy over chemicals and food, and what--if anything--one does to the other, is never-ending, but decaffeination, so far, has about as clean a bill of health as you can get.
Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.