Is it Ok to Give Kids Coffee?

I didn’t touch my first cup of coffee until I was in college, when I thought it gave me the appearance of looking far more grown up than I felt.  Among my own children, though, swilling lattes in coffee shops is part of the middle and high school culture. Kids routinely convene at Starbucks (or here in San Francisco, at hipster coffee shops that sell $5 toast) to hang out or do homework. Indeed, research shows that between 1999 and 2010 caffeine intake from coffee rose from 10 to 24 percent among children and adolescents.

The question is, should parents be concerned about their tween bellying up to the barista for another macchiato? After all, we know that drinking coffee can benefit adults in myriad ways, from better concentration to improved athletic performance.

The answer in my opinion, is yes, there is reason for caution. Here’s why:

CAFFEINE

While we know that caffeine has some upsides, little is known of the long-term effect of regular coffee consumption among kids. The American Academy of Pedriatrics advises that children of all ages lay off the caffeine, which is known to increase blood pressure and heart rate, not to mention disrupt sleep, particularly among the young and uninitiated. I have seen first hand how a tired teen might want to reach for the coffee pot during finals. However, routinely relying on caffeine for energy begs the bigger question of whether a child is getting enough sleep in the first place.

Suggestion: Look for drinks that are naturally caffeine-free, such as steamed milk with a dash of cinnamon or herbal tea. Teens who have developed a taste for coffee can order decaf instead. For adolescents looking to coffee to stave off sleepiness, it may be time to take a good look at the amount and quality of sleep they are getting and make some adjustments accordingly.

SUGAR

Coffee is notoriously bitter, a flavor that takes some getting used to, particularly for young palates.  As a result, kids can get heavy handed with the sugar. Pre-sweetened coffee drinks, such as frappuccinos, are often sky-high in the stuff. Consider the data that found more than one-third of hot drinks at Starbucks contain more sugar than a can of Coke.

Suggestion: Heavy up on the milk, which will not only offset coffee’s bitterness, but also provide added calcium (a mineral many are lacking, teens girls in particular). When opting for prepared coffee drinks, ask the barista to scale back the number of pumps of syrup  by at least one-third. Better yet, have them leave it out altogether and sweeten it yourself, if desired. Also, be aware that plant-based milks, such as soy and almond, are often already sweetened, so taste your drink before you head for the sugar shaker. Lastly, don’t fall for “light” drinks, the ones that boast being “sugar free”.  They’re likely sweetened artificially, which isn’t a good choice, either.

CALORIES

A cup of black coffee has a weensy 2 calories. You’ll burn more lifting the cup to your mouth than consuming what’s in there. But look around at what most kids (and many adults) are drinking at coffee shops; they’re  more like shakes than coffee. Consider, for example, that a large white chocolate latte with whip at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf is 650 calories. That’s nearly 100 more calories than two Haagan Daz ice cream bars.

Suggestions:  Educate your children that frothy, sugary-sweet, whipped cream-topped coffee drinks aren’t really coffee at all. They’re dessert and should be enjoyed as an occasional treat not an everyday thing. When ordering prepared drinks, choose the smallest size, scale back the sugar, and skip the whip. Better yet, aim for simpler drinks, such as herbal iced tea or decaf iced coffee that you dress up with milk and sweeten yourself. 

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Comments

03.14.2016 at 7:13 AM #

Wendy

Some of those drinks contain more calories than most folks should be eating in a day… I would be curious about the correlation between when Starbucks started its sprawl and how fast our nation is getting bigger.

03.14.2016 at 9:46 AM #

[email protected]

I couldn’t agree more! The first time I started drinking coffee was when I was working to put myself through college and had to get up and work on Saturday mornings. I can’t believe how many young girls are drinking coffee simply as a status symbol. I’ve tried to explain to my tween daughter all the points you’ve made in this article! Such a great post! It needed to be said. Thank you!

03.14.2016 at 10:33 AM #

spring

After spending 5 weeks in the UK and Europe this summer, my girls developed a taste for black tea and coffee. As long as it is a small amount (more milk than tea/coffee…about a 1/4 cup coffee to 1/2 cup milk), not after 10am and not accompanied by sugar, I am fine with it.
They consider it a treat and I’m pleased that there appear to be multiple accepted health benefits associated with tea and coffee. On a cold rainy morning, I’d frankly much rather have them enjoy the occasional small cup of coffee than hot chocolate. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/upshot/more-consensus-on-coffees-benefits-than-you-might-think.html

03.14.2016 at 10:33 AM #

katiemorford

How very European of you! It’s true that coffee has been found to have all sort of benefits. What we don’t know is how that translates for kids. The issue, really, isn’t the occasional milky cup, but when kids drink coffee in large volumes on a regular basis with all the sugary bells and whistles, which is becoming the norm in coffee houses.

03.14.2016 at 9:49 PM #

Laurie-Ann

Thanks so much for this post. My 13 year old loves to go to Starbucks – usually for Frappucinos. I let her go every so often and I insist she order decaf but I don’t know what happens when I’m not there 🙁 Starbucks just seems like an expensive gateway drug outlet to me. And they are so ubiquitous it is hard to avoid them.

03.14.2016 at 9:49 PM #

katiemorford

I think it’s like so many things in parenting…give kids information and tools to make good choices. They won’t always follow suit, particularly teens, but eventually all the positive role modeling and education will pay off.

03.18.2016 at 5:15 AM #

Susan

Interesting that you should bring this up since I recently read a piece in the Boston Globe about TODDLERS drinking coffee (the Boston Medical Center study showed more that 15% of infants and toddlers were drinking up to 4 oz a day!). As others have mentioned, these results are likely tied to cultural norms, but as you note, the researchers are concerned about some studies that tie caffeine consumption to diabetes, depression, sleep problems, etc. I’ve linked to the article below.

In terms of older kids drinking coffee, my 8th grade daughter reports that most of her classmates come to school with their Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts (hey, we’re in MA!) mug. Walking into middle school with your coffee has become a status symbol. We happen to not drink coffee for religious reasons (Mormon), but it troubles me from a “fitting in” perspective that the kids seem to spend a few buck every morning to seem more adult.

https://www.bostonglobe.com/2015/03/05/many-boston-toddlers-are-consuming-coffee-study-finds/Jq6CpzCMdaGClJUueopdfM/story.html

03.18.2016 at 5:15 AM #

katiemorford

Thanks for the comment, Susan. I hadn’t heard about toddlers and coffee…I appreciate the link. Your daughter’s observations at school don’t surprise me. I think the same is happening in my neck of the woods.

03.19.2016 at 5:40 AM #

Meal Makeover Mom Janice

I am amazed at the number of kids who drink coffee and frappuccinos and coolatas on a regular basis. In addition to the issue of caffeine, sugar, and calories, how are these kids able to afford the $3 or $4 or $5 on a regular (sometimes daily) basis for these drinks? I think twice before treating myself to a fancy Starbucks coffee! Times are a-changing…

03.19.2016 at 5:40 AM #

katiemorford

I agree about the cost! Those drinks don’t come cheap, especially if it’s a regular habit.

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