It may surprise some parents to find out that caffeine is in many of the foods and beverages their kids consume.
Which Foods Contain Caffeine?
The obvious and most common source of caffeine is soft drinks. However, there may be caffeine other foods and drinks your child or teen enjoys. Other common sources include coffee, tea (including iced tea), energy drinks, over-the-counter headache medications, and chocolate (including hot chocolate and other chocolate milk drinks). Also look out for caffeine in coffee-flavored candies, ice cream, and frozen yogurt.
How Much Is Too Much?
In moderate doses, caffeine increases alertness, but too much caffeine can lead to jitteriness, upset stomach, headaches, difficulty concentrating, problems sleeping, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. For young children, it does not take much caffeine to produce these negative results. Caffeine may also cause problems for children with heart problems or nervous disorders, and some children may not even know they are at risk.
Caffeine moves through the body in a few hours and is flushed out in the urine. The body does not store caffeine, but children and teens may feel its effects for up to 6 hours, depending on their sensitivity.
Unfortunately, there is no consensus in the medical community about upper limits of caffeine intake for children and teens. The US has not set guidelines for caffeine intake for children, but Canadian guidelines recommend that preschool-age children should have less than 45 mg (milligrams) of caffeine per day, or about the amount found in one soda.
Caffeine and Health
Drinking too many beverages with caffeine has an added concern. It reduces a child's appetite for other, healthier beverages like milk.
Other studies have looked at the effects of caffeine on school performance. Low doses of caffeine may have actually enhanced performance, attentiveness, and some motor tasks, although the children also reported increased anxiety. Other studies have linked caffeine consumption to getting less sleep, which has been linked to higher BMI (body mass index) scores in teenagers, especially older teenagers. Another study of young children (aged 9-12 years), found a link between those who consumed caffeine and those who suffered from symptoms of depression, but it did not establish a cause and effect relationship.
What Can Parents Do?
It can be hard for parents to know how much caffeine their kids are consuming. One tip is to purchase only those beverages labeled "caffeine-free." With food items other than beverages, the only accurate method of determining the caffeine content of foods and beverages is to contact the food manufacturer.
Parents can take the following steps to limit their children's caffeine intake:
- Only purchase beverages labeled "caffeine-free."
- Limit overall intake of soda.
- Encourage children and teens to choose water over soda, energy drinks, or coffee drinks.
- Be aware of over-the-counter medications that contain caffeine.
Center for Science in the Public Interest
International Food Information Council Foundation
Dietitians of Canada
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Kids should not consume energy drinks, and rarely need sports drinks, says AAP. American Academy of Pediatrics Healthy Children website. Available at: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/news/Pages/Kids-Should-Not-Consume-Energy-Drinks-and-Rarely-Need-Sports-Drinks-Says-AAP.aspx. Updated May 30, 2011. Accessed May 3, 2016.
Malinauskas BM, Aeby VG, Overton RF, Carpenter-Aeby T, Barber-Heidal K. A survey of energy drink consumption patterns among college students. Nutr J. 2007;6:35.
Last reviewed May 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 5/3/2016