Caffeine free and decaffeinated mean two totally different things, yet many Americans use the words interchangeably. Here is what you should know, especially if you are trying to limit or minimize caffeine in your diet.
Caffeine free means that all ingredients occur in nature without caffeine. Therefore, there is no special process to remove the caffeine from them. Real tea is never caffeine free. Other plants, like rooibos, honeybush or chamomile which are common in herbal tea are caffeine free. If you are looking for a 100% caffeine free drink, you need to use the term caffeine free and not decaffeinated. Tisanes and herbals are caffeine free and get to count toward your water consumption since there is zero caffeine in the final brew. Decaffeinated teas do not.
Decaffeinated means that the product has undergone a special process to strip most, but not all, of the caffeine out of it. CO2 decaffeination is commonly used in the tea industry to remove caffeine from tea leaves. To read in depth about this process, take a look at this blog post. The decaffeination process, however, still leaves residual caffeine. In both the United States and Europe, there is not set amount of residual caffeine, but a percentage of the original caffeine of the batch that is allowed. Given that the original amount of caffeine can vary dramatically between teas and even harvests of the same tea, there is no exact way to find the amount of caffeine remaining. Quite frankly decaffeinated teas do not and cannot taste as good as the original tea. While the caffeine is being removed, other polyphenols are also being removed that provide the original flavor to the tea. This normally leaves the decaffeinated tea tasting flat, so for many people, tisanes and herbal teas are more appealing when avoiding caffeine.
These differences between decaf and caffeine free make a huge difference in your tea drinking experience. Use them wisely.