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Caffeine for Kids: What’s the Buzz About?

No doubt, caffeine may be the most popular, legal, easily obtained, socially acceptable drug in our nation.

But caffeine for kids? Increasingly and at younger ages, our kids are seen toting caffeine-laden drinks.

They carry around their favorite Starbuck’s latte or their can’t-live-without Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee.

Is this a fix or a status symbol? I’d venture to say it’s probably both.

A child with a cup of coffee; The Buzz on Caffeine and Kids

Where is Caffeine Found?

According to a recent study in Pediatrics, almost 75% of children consume caffeine every day. Most of it is coming from soda, but that is changing.

Recent surveys highlight caffeine for kids as an increasingly prevalent concern in young people’s diets.

The use of energy drinks and caffeine pills add to these increased rates. All told, our youth face increased  risks because of them.

However, coffee and other sources of caffeine for kids aren’t limited to the school-age and teen-age crowd.

A recent study of Boston toddlers (1-2 years olds) looked at their consumption rates of coffee. Among 1-year-olds, the rate of coffee consumption was 2.5 percent.

By the time children reached the age of 2, more than 15% were consuming coffee.

Of these 2 year olds, about 15% consumed as much as 4 ounces (1/2 cup) of coffee each day. Not only is caffeine a concern for these little ones, but so is the likelihood of added sugar in their diet.

How Caffeine Affects the Body

While one parent thinks it’s no big deal to offer a sip of their latte to their young toddler, another one is oblivious to the amount and regularity with which their child consumes it.

I think we need to pay more attention to caffeine, and especially to how it’s percolating in our kids’ diets.

Let’s take a look at how caffeine affects the body:

Caffeine is a stimulant. Its effects are primarily on the activity of the brain and organs.

While it won’t stunt your child’s growth, it might have an adverse effect on his blood pressure and heart rate. 

We have limited studies on the effects of caffeine in growing children. However, a recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics looked at the effects of intake on boys and girls aged 8-9 years and those aged 15-17 years.

All children and teens in the study experienced changes in their blood pressure (increased) and their heart rate (slowed down).

The effects were the same in both boys and girls in the younger group, but stronger in the teen boys than in the teen girls.

Other common side effects included jitteriness, nervousness, an upset stomach, problems sleeping and concentrating.  

More severe symptoms occur with caffeine overdose.

Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, extreme restlessness, a flushed face, frequent urination, “scatterbrain” thoughts and actions, a high heart rate, and an irregular heart beat can signal caffeine overdose.

A caffeine overdose can lead to seizures and cardiac arrest.

Thankfully, such cases are rare. 

At What Age is Caffeine Safe?

Major health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggest that children under the age of 12 years should not eat or drink any caffeine-containing foods or drinks.

For children older than 12 years, caffeine intake should fall in the range of no more than 85-100 milligrams (mg) per day.

Ingesting amounts that exceed 50 mg per pound are considered toxic and place a child at risk for caffeine overdose and caffeine toxicity. (as described above).

Where is Caffeine Found?

Coffee is the obvious source of caffeine, but you can find it in other sodas, drinks and food sources.

The following table shows you where caffeine is lurking:

Food Serving Size Amount of Caffeine (mg)
Starbuck’s coffee 16 ounces (grande) 330 mg
Starbuck’s café mocha 16 ounces (grande) 175 mg
Maxwell House or Folgers, brewed from grounds 16 ounces 160-200 
Starbuck’s café Latte 16 ounces 150 mg
Dunkin’ Donuts coffee 14 ounces 145 mg
Frappuccino 16 ounces 110-145 mg
Frappuccino Blended Crème, Double Chocolaty Chip 16 ounces 25 mg
Hot chocolate 16 ounces 25 mg
Starbuck’s Iced coffee (bottled) 11 ounces 200 mg
Bottled tea (Arizona, Lipton, Snapple 16 ounces 30-60 mg
Coca Cola, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Sunkist, Mountain Dew, TAB 12 ounces 35-55 mg
Edy’s Grand Espresso Chip ½ cup 45 mg
Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch ½ cup 40 mg
Dannon All Natural Coffee Yogurt 6 ounces 30 mg
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar 1 bar, 1.5 ounces 10 mg

Adapted from: Caffeine: The Good, The Bad, and the Maybe, published by Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). 

What Caffeine Products Should Children Avoid?

Energy drinks are another growing source of caffeine for kids and teens.

Some energy drinks are reported to have up to 250 mg per serving. Many energy drinks are packaged with more than one serving, resulting in large caffeine doses.

Energy drinks also include other micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), herbal additives, and sugar in potentially large doses.

Since energy drinks are considered supplements, they aren’t closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but rather by the manufacturers themselves.

[If you have a young athlete, I dig into this topic in depth in my book, Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete.]

The risk of contaminants, such as steroids or heavy metals, mislabeled ingredients, and incorrect amounts are real issues for the consumer.

It’s hard to tell what energy drink has the most caffeine, as products are always changing. However, always discourage the use of energy drinks in your child.

More importantly, teach your child to be aware of what an energy drink is, and how and why to avoid them.

What about Caffeine Pills and Powders?

Caffeine pills and powders are relatively new and growing in popularity. They are used as a way to get a boost of energy, particularly among young athletes.

Caffeine pills and powders are very dangerous because their dosages are very concentrated. One teaspoon has been reported to contain up to 1600 mg caffeine.

This high concentration of caffeine enters the bloodstream quickly and can wreck havoc on your child.

Other Risks of Caffeine for Kids

Because caffeine stimulates alertness, it makes sense that beverages and food may interfere with sleep.

For kids and teens that are still growing and who need more sleep than adults, regular caffeine consumption can lead to a lack of sleep.

In turn, this may impact their alertness during the day, leading to a vicious cycle of consuming more caffeine to stay awake.

Your child’s nutrition may suffer when high amounts of caffeine are included in the diet. the potential for squeezing out nutritious beverages and curbing appetite, resulting in reduced eating overall is real.

When kids drink too many coffee drinks, excessive calories in the form of sugar can be consumed, contributing to weight gain.

Last, if you have a child with anxiety, heart problems, or nervous system issues, your child may be more sensitive to caffeine making the side effects more intense.  

What do you think about caffeine for kids? More importantly, what are your child’s consumption patterns of caffeine? 

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