Dear Mr. Dad: I have been noticing kids who look much younger than high-school age buying frapuccino-type drinks at Starbucks and similar coffee places. It worries me, because I didn’t think caffeine was good for children, and didn’t allow my own son to have any while he was a teenager. Is coffee really bad for children? If so, what is your advice to parents whose children can buy their own snacks after school?

A: You’re absolutely right. Caffeine and children don’t belong in the same room. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that for adults, 300-400 milligrams (mg)–about three cups of coffee—per day is generally safe. But the FDA hasn’t established safe levels for children. Most pediatricians, however, say that children under 12 shouldn’t have any, and kids 12-18 shouldn’t consume more than 100 mg/day.

Those recommendations haven’t stopped kids from getting it. In fact, about 75% of children and young adults consume caffeine every day. Where’s it all coming from? Until fairly recently, children’s main source of caffeine was soda. However, ever since researchers started drawing the connection between sugary drinks and obesity, soda consumption has been on the decline. Today, children—especially teenagers—are turning to coffee and energy drinks, both of which generally pack a lot more caffeine than soda.

For example, a can of soda typically has 25-35 mg (diet drinks have even more). Energy drinks have 80-350 mg; a regular cup of coffee has 95-200 mg; and one of those fancy coffeehouse drinks can have upwards of 300 or 400 mg. Caffeine is also being added to all sorts of products, according to the FDA, more on that below.

Here’s why caffeine is such a problem for kids.

  • It interferes with sleep patterns. On average, school kids (ages 6 to 13) need 9 to 11 hours of sleep every night. Teens can get by with an hour less. But caffeine, which we all know is a stimulant, can keep kids awake later and make the sleep they do get less restful. Caffeine starts working within minutes of being ingested, and its effects can last as long as six hours.
  • Oral health. Caffeine is often acidic and can increase the risk of developing cavities. Coffee drinks may also stain teeth.
  • It’s addictive. Over time, some people may have to increase the amount of caffeine they consume to get the same effect. And for most caffeine addicts, abruptly quitting causes headaches and other withdrawal symptoms.
  • Diet. Caffeine can suppress the diet (which is why some use it to lose weight). But for growing children who need to be eating plenty of healthy foods, that may not be a good thing. On the other hand, high levels of caffeine are often associated with high calorie counts. For example, at Starbucks, a Venti sized Mocha Frappucino has 500 calories, a Carmel Brulee latte has 540, and a Venti Iced Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha has 660.
  • Unforseen effects. Caffeine affects the neurologic and cardiovascular systems, which are still developing in children and teens. Generally speaking, it’s best not to tamper with developing systems.
  • It can cause indigestion and muscle tremors.

So what can we do? Start by talking with your kids about caffeine in much the same way as you’d talk with them about drugs and cigarettes. Explain the health risks and why they should stay away from it. Next, read labels. In products where caffeine occurs naturally, such as coffee beans, it won’t be listed. But if it’s added, it must be included on the label. Today, added caffeine is showing up in foods such as gum, candy, chips, ice cream, sunflower seeds, and even oatmeal, and in non-food products including deodorant, toothpaste, and lip balm.

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