Growing up in a caffeine culture

Is the coffee shop, where kids meet their friends, the 21st century version of our grandparent’s malt shop? Perhaps. But it’s where some kids are picking up a caffeine habit. Parents whose children have trouble sleeping might want to look into whether their children are ingesting too much caffeine.

What is caffeine?

Caffeine is an odorless, bitter substance present naturally in coffee beans, tea leaves, kola nuts and cacao (cocoa) beans. It is also made synthetically and added to beverages, foods, herbal supplements and medications. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, certain soft drinks and chocolate.

Best known as a stimulant, caffeine also reduces the amount of blood sugar insulin can process in overweight people. It can also exaggerate the effects of stress. But no, it does not stunt a child’s growth.

Currently, manufacturers are simply required to list caffeine as an ingredient. In February, both the Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo announced plans to list the amount of caffeine on beverage labels.

National branded sodas contain more caffeine than store-brand counterparts, according to a study published in the August Journal of Food Science. Sugar-free varieties contain more than their sugared counterparts, one more reason to limit diet sodas.

Caffeine is also found in coffee-flavored yogurt, ice cream and the increasingly popular energy drinks. It’s even being added to certain lip balms, waters, sunflower seeds, soaps and, for adults, beer.

A recent analysis from the University of Florida found that most"decaf” coffees contain anywhere from 3 to nearly 16 milligrams caffeine per 16 ounce serving. A decaf latte from Starbucks contains two shots of decaf espresso—and as much caffeine as a can of cola.

Children’s intake

It’s troubling to see children as young as toddler age forming the caffeine habit. Because children have a lower body weight, they can tolerate much less caffeine compared to an adult. And there is little to no research on how caffeine affects growing bodies and brains. It’s widely acknowledged that adults should limit caffeine to 300 milligrams a day. But kids? Nobody really knows. One might say that today’s caffeinated children are serving as guinea pigs.

A USDA study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that more than 76 percent of children ages 2 and up consumed some caffeine, primarily from soft drinks. As children mature, they often switch over to coffees. But many of the coffee drinks that appeal to them—full of sugar, flavoring and cream—are high in fat and calories.

When to draw the line

Children who exhibit irritability, anxiety, fidgeting and the inability to settle down at bedtime may be ingesting too much caffeine. If your child is exhibiting these symptoms, it may be worth taking a look into his diet and eliminating the caffeine.

Baked apples with cinnamon yogurt topping

• 4 Granny Smith or Gala apples
• 1/4 cup unsweetened apple juice
• 1/4 cup brown sugar 
• 2 tablespoons cornstarch 
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 
• 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 
• 1/4 teaspoon salt

For the topping:

• 2 1/2 cups low-fat plain yogurt • 1 tablespoon honey • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8×8-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.

Core and thinly slice apples. Place apples in a medium bowl and toss with apple juice. Mix brown sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt together in a small bowl. Sprinkle over apples and stir gently until apples are coated.

Pour apples into prepared baking dish. Bake 40 minutes or until apples are slightly browned at edges and sauce is bubbling.

For the topping, line a colander with several paper towels and place over a bowl to catch drips. Pour yogurt into colander and allow to drain, refrigerated, about 30 minutes. Spoon yogurt into a small bowl and stir in honey and cinnamon. Spoon over warm apples. Makes 4 servings.

Calories: 330, Protein: 7 g, Carbohydrate: 72 g, Fat: 2 g, Saturated Fat: 1.5 g, Cholesterol: 15 mg, Sugars: 25 g, Dietary Fiber: 3 g, Sodium: 270 mg, Calcium: 265 mg. Recipe created by 3-A-Day of Dairy

Caffeine counter
Per 8-ounce serving unless otherwise indicated. 
Caffeine quantities are in milligrams.

Chocolate milk 5Coca-Cola Classic (12 oz) 34Coffee, drip brewed 102-200Dannon Coffee Yogurt (8 oz) 45Decaffeinated black tea 4Decaffeinated coffee 5Diet Coke (12 oz) 46Diet Pepsi (12 oz) 37Dr. Pepper (12 oz) 43Enviga (12 oz) 100Green Tea (8 oz) 25-40Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bar (1.5 oz) 10Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate Bar (1.5 oz) 31Mountain Dew (Reg/Diet) (12 oz) 55Red Bull (8.3 oz) 80Snapple Iced Tea (Lemon and Peach) (16 oz) 42Starbucks Coffee (Grande/16 oz) 320 Starbucks Coffee Ice Cream (1 cup) 50-60Starbucks Frappuccino Vanilla (9.5 oz) 95Tea, black 40-70

Sources: Center for Science in the Public Interest, Journal of Food Science and company Web sites

Christine M. Palumbo, RD, is a registered dietitian in private practice in Naperville. She and her children are sensitive to the effects of caffeine and limit their intake. Christine can be reached at (630) 369-8495 or

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