What's the Right Age: Drinking Coffee

Is coffee just an adult drink, or can kids enjoy it, too?
Is coffee just an adult drink, or can kids enjoy it, too?
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During a family outing to your favorite bookstore, you decide to stop in the café area for a cappuccino. "I want one, too!" your 12-year-old daughter declares.

What should you do? Will all that caffeine make her hyper, and can it really stunt her growth? Will the other adults think you're a bad parent? What age is too young for coffee?

Coffee seems to come in a million different varieties these days, and lots of them get our kids' attention and make their mouths water. The National Coffee Association says that young people are the fastest-growing group of coffee lovers. Yummy coffee drinks seem to be everywhere, and cafés are popping up in bookstores, grocery stores, libraries and even high schools. Even fast food places like McDonald's joined the trend when they recently added the Mocha Frappé to their menu. These blended, coffee-based drinks, topped with whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup, are closer to milkshakes than a regular cup of joe, and they're sure to awaken the appetites of teens, tweens and younger children. TV commercials tell us that we need a boost to get through our busy day, and caffeine offers just the right kick.

But is it alright for a teenager to use coffee to perk up in the morning or to stay up and study for an important test? Can a tween drink mocha lattes to feel sophisticated with friends without causing any harm? Is it perfectly fine to have a cup of coffee every now and then when you're hovering around the teenage years, or are we raising a generation of jittery caffeine junkies with stained teeth?

As more and more kids become coffee fans, more and more parents are wondering what, if anything, to do about it. Many are wondering what age is too young and if it's alright to give in when our child asks to try coffee. To make these decisions, we need to know what effects coffee could have on our children's behavior and health.

What should you do, and why are today's kids so drawn to coffee, anyway? Read on to learn about coffee's appeal.

Why Kids Like Coffee

Those of us who found coffee too bitter as children might wonder just what our kids see in the beverage. When today's parents were growing up, they saw mom and dad -- and other such non-cool adults -- drinking coffee. Today, there seems to be a trendy café on every street corner, even in the suburbs, and young celebrities like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are frequently photographed with "venti" Starbucks cups in hand, an accessory nearly as fashionable as the latest designer pooch or Fendi handbag.

Alongside those celebrity photos is the message that we all need a jolt to keep up with our fast-paced lifestyle. While most of today's parents had lots of free time for play during childhood, many kids now have schedules that are packed as tightly as an adult's. TV commercials show animated characters using energy drinks to perk them up, and kids learn from those images. 13-year-old Chelsea from Donnelsville, Ohio, first tried coffee when she was in the 5th grade: "I felt kind of sluggish in the morning, and I needed something more to go on," she said. Many of the kids her age at her church use energy drinks as a pick-me-up, but Chelsea doesn't like how they taste. She drinks iced coffee some mornings to give her energy, and believes that the 6th grade is a good time for kids to try coffee. "With all the pressure put on you in the 6th grade, coffee might kind of help you in the morning," she said.

Also, while coffee choices used to range from regular to decaf (or maybe French roast if you were bold), now the choices seem almost limitless. Coffee-based drinks with chocolate can appeal to younger people who may not be able to tolerate plain coffee's bitter side. Coffee drinks also come in fancy cups or topped with whipped cream and chocolate swirls -- such bells and whistles can be irresistible to kids.

Are those lattes damaging our kids' health? Read on to learn if coffee is bad for your child.

Is Coffee Bad for Kids?

While caffeine does not stunt children's growth, too much caffeine can cause symptoms like hyperactivity, insomnia, nervousness, nausea, irritability, headaches, anxiety, and even muscle tremors or irregular heartbeat.

So how much is too much? The Mayo Clinic recommends no more than 200 to 300 milligrams per day for adults, but the U.S. doesn't suggest an official maximum daily amount of caffeine for kids. Health Canada recommends no more than 45 milligrams a day for kids aged 4 to 6, 62.5 milligrams for kids age 7 to 9, 85 milligrams for kids age 10 to 12, and no more than 2.5 milligrams per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight for adolescents 13 and up -- which means that a 110 pound adolescent should not have more than 125 milligrams of caffeine a day. Many coffee beverages contain more than that: a 16-ounce Starbucks Vanilla Latte contains 150 milligrams of caffeine [source: The Mayo Clinic].

Caffeine isn't the only possible problem with the latest coffee treat. Many coffee drinks are packed with staggering amounts of sugar, fat and calories. Blended, milkshake-like coffee drinks are usually the biggest culprits: a 16-ounce Starbucks White Chocolate Crème Frappuccino delivers 610 calories and 19 grams of fat (a McDonald's Quarter Pounder with cheese, for comparison, has 510 calories and 26 grams of fat) [sources: Starbucks, McDonald's]. The obesity epidemic our children are facing makes this no laughing matter. Coffee can also stain kids' teeth, and the sugar in some coffee drinks can lead to cavities.

So what should you do if your 14-year-old asks for a latte? Moderation is key. Remember all the sources of caffeine in your child's diet (sodas, chocolate, tea) and make sure that he or she isn't getting too much. Help your kid to cut back gradually to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Learn about the sugar and fat content of your child's drinks, and suggest the 8-ounce drink instead of the monster-sized one. Make sure your child doesn't drink coffee less than 6 hours before bedtime. Teaching your kids to be responsible coffee drinkers will help them stay healthy, happy and cool.

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Sources

  • Health Canada. "It's Your Health: Caffeine." March 2010. (June 2, 2010) http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/food-aliment/caffeine-eng.php#he
  • The Mayo Clinic. "Caffeine Content for Coffee, Tea, Soda and More." Oct. 3, 2009. (June 1, 2010) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/caffeine/AN01211
  • The Mayo Clinic. "Caffeine: How Much is Too Much?" March 24, 2009. (June 1, 2010) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/caffeine/nu00600
  • McDonald's. "McDonald's U.S.A. Nutrition Facts for McCafe Coffees." (June 2, 2010) http://nutrition.mcdonalds.com/nutritionexchange/McCafeMenu.pdf
  • McDonald's. "McDonald's U.S.A. Nutrition Facts for Popular Menu Items." January 2007. (June 3, 2010) http://nutrition.mcdonalds.com/nutritionexchange/nutritionfacts.pdf
  • The Nemours Foundation. "TeensHealth: Caffeine." (June 1, 2010) http://kidshealth.org/teen/food_fitness/nutrition/caffeine.html
  • The Nemours Foundation. "TeensHealth: Taking Care of Your Teeth." (June 2, 2010) http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_body/take_care/teeth.html
  • Starbucks. "Nutrition Catalog." (June 1, 2010) http://www.starbucks.com/menu/catalog/nutrition?drink=all
  • MSNBC.com. "Coffee the Norm for growing number of children." April 15, 2008. (June 1, 2010) http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/24123703/ns/parenting_and_family/
  • Trust for America's Health. "F as in Fat 2009: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America." July 2009. (June 1, 2010) http://healthyamericans.org/reports/obesity2009/