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Kids and Caffeine

What Kind Of Negative Effects Caffeine Has On Kids

As adults, we are consumed with coffee and caffeine. Just look on every corner, shopping center and in your local grocery store, and there is probably a grande, non-fat latte waiting for you. While we are grabbing our much-needed "cup of Joe," what are our kids reaching for?

Energy to Burn

Walk in to the refrigerated section of any convenience store and you will see your child's beverage options. Yes, the milk and bottled water are there, but keep walking and you will pass the standard sodas to find some new choices, such as Red Bull, Amp (Pepsi), 180 (Anheuser Busch) and KMX (Coca Cola). You may even come across more assertive names, such as Monster Energy, Adrenaline Rush (Pepsi) and Whoopass. Why are these thin, wide-mouth cans so tempting to kids? Because they are filled with the forbidden ingredients: sugar and caffeine.

Though caffeine is no stranger to supermarket shelves, it is appearing in unprecedented amounts in some of the beverage options. Mountain Dew first raised the bar on caffeine content by adding 10 to 15 milligrams, compared to other sodas. In the late 1990s, Red Bull was distributed in the United States, and Americans were introduced to "high energy drinks."

Patrice Radden, from the Red Bull Communications Center, says that its blend of key ingredients has set the product apart from other drinks on the market and has created a totally new market segment.

Other distributors did not waste any time joining in on this new craze, and for $2 a can, it's easy to see how our kids spend their allowance so quickly. What makes these drinks different from "doing the Dew"? Ingredients such as taurine and guarana – and loads of caffeine.

Caffeine and Kids

The big attraction for most energy drinks is caffeine. But what effect will all of this caffeine have on children? "Caffeine has a negative effect on sleeping patterns of children," says Flavia Herzog, a registered dietitian with "A Better Start" at Albert Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia, Pa. "Even if the child is not having trouble falling asleep at night, they may not be getting into a deep sleep." She adds that high levels of caffeine consumption are also linked to headaches, restlessness and possibly ADHD.

"A child's body is still developing and growing and is much more vulnerable to the impact of these drinks," Herzog says. "Energy drinks can stay in a child's system for up to 12 hours. What is that doing to their kidneys and liver to clean it out?"

Herzog says there is not enough research about the products and their effects on children, but asks, "Do you really want to take that chance?" Radden explains that Red Bull is not intended for children and says, "Children are more sensitive to caffeine than adults and normally have plenty of energy. We do not recommend Red Bull to caffeine sensitive individuals, including children."

Added Ingredients

In addition to caffeine, some high-energy drinks contain ma huang (a form of ephedrine), guarana and taurine. "Taurine is a compound similar to an amino acid, but it isn't essential to human beings," says Merritt King, a high school chemistry teacher in Lamesa, Texas. "While it hasn't been proven taurine causes any diseases, it is linked to several."

King would discourage the use of any supplemental drink in children because they can train the brain to make less of the natural energy chemicals that fuel the body. "It is the same kind of dependence adults feel if they don't get their two cups of coffee a day," she says. Recent studies have shown that children and adolescents are vulnerable to caffeine withdrawal, which causes a person to feel angry and have problems thinking clearly.

Coffee Craze

Coffee is another drink you will find in the hands of more and more preteens. Though there is no age limit on purchasing coffee or other caffeinated beverages, Jenny Walsh, a public relations specialist for Starbucks Coffee Company, says that Starbucks markets their products to an adult customer base.

"We do know that our inviting, smoke-free environment is also appealing to families and teens," she says.

So if your child can't wait to hang out at the coffee shop like the "friends" on "Must See TV," encourage some of the lower caffeine beverages that many establishments offer, such as hot chocolate or apple cider.

What Should Your Child Drink?

Rita Mitchell, a registered dietitian with the University of California Berkeley and a specialist in child nutrition, says that a child needs plenty of calcium and protein, and milk is a good way to get the nutrients they need. "If a child is over the age of 2, low-fat or non-fat milk is preferred," she says. Plenty of water and 100-percent juice are also recommended. "Juice drinks are not as good," she says, adding that these drinks have too many calories.

High-energy drinks should not be confused with sports drinks. If your child is playing or participating in a sport for over an hour and is working up a sweat, then a sports drink is a good choice. "Replacing the electrolytes lost in sweat (especially sodium) helps maintain the desire to drink, helps hold water in the bloodstream and helps speed rehydration.," says Bob Murray, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and director of Gatorade Sports Science Institute.

He recommends that during physical activity, kids consume fluids (water or sports drink) at regular intervals, such as every 20 minutes. "Children should consume 5 to 9 ounces on these occasions, smaller volumes for kids who weigh less than 88 pounds, more for kids who weigh more than 132 pounds," he says.

Murray emphasizes the importance of voluntary drinking to help keep hydrated. "It is well established that light flavoring and sweetness are two important characteristics in driving voluntary fluid intake," he says. So if your child doesn't want "plain" water, try a flavored water or sports drink. "Voluntary drinking is the front-line defense against dehydration," he says.

Carbonation in the Cafeteria

You may notice your child's school cafeteria restocking the soda machines with milk-based carbonated drinks. Though these beverages provide more nutrients than a soft drink, having regular milk (or even chocolate-flavored milk) is a better option.

Mitchell questions what replacing one carbonated drink for another is teaching our kids. "Children need to learn to eat 'real' food rather than 'processed,'" Mitchell says.

And Mitchell's thoughts on high-energy drinks for children? "This is sending a message to our kids that you need special drinks to have energy, when really you need to eat healthy food."

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