How young is too young to take that first sip? Well, that largely depends on where you live and what you believe. The great debate over if toddlers and adolescents should be able to drink coffee, and if so, at what age, is hotly debated and riddled with uncertainties. Today, we are going to attempt to add some clarity to what we know, looking first at the major fears of child coffee consumption before moving onto the facts and take-aways for the future.
According to researchers at John Hopkins University, the greatest concern with children and adolescents drinking coffee is the unknown impact caffeine has on developing nervous and cardiovascular systems and on young brains. We know that caffeine energizes the nervous system and chemically alters the brain — in a good way if consumed in moderation and in a bad way if consumed in quantities in excess of an individual’s tolerance. Tolerance, though generally categorized by a physical age bracket, is actually a function of a person’s metabolic rate. Just as caffeine affects each individual adult differently, it similarly affects each child differently.
Another fear posed by researchers is that early age caffeine consumption makes young drinkers more susceptible to later-life anxiety and stimulant sensitively1. As these findings were extrapolated from a 2016 study on adolescent rats, no one is certain that early-age caffeine consumption impacts humans in the same way. A 2014 study conducted by Australian researchers found a similar increase in later-life anxiety but determined the cause of increased anxiety to be energy drinks, which are very high in both sugar and caffeine2. This study also noted that underage drinkers were more likely to suffer from obesity, poor sleep, and risk of diabetes.
The Facts (or lack of)
Regular coffee consumption (by adults) has been proven to increase a coffee drinker’s life expectancy and decrease their risk of developing multiple diseases including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and certain cancers. While we cannot know for certain that moderate coffee consumption offers the same benefits to pre-teen drinkers, the logical assumption is to believe that it does. Coffee is packed with antioxidants, including polyphenols, which are known to reduce internal inflammation, leading to better all-around health. Drinking coffee has also been proven to increase short-term memory and focus, and to reduce the sensation of stress. Viewed together, this data shows that … unfortunately, even doctors are torn on the question of underage coffee consumption. While most agree that children under the age of 5 or 6 should stay away from coffee, others consider it harmless, and possibly salubrious, if consumed in moderation starting at 5 or 6 years of age. In Canada, the government publishes daily recommended limits of caffeine consumption for children (guidelines are shown below), and in many parts of South and Central America, it is quite common for young children to drink small amounts of coffee daily. In the US, the percent of underage café au lait lovers increases annually. According to a 2015 study conducted by the Boston Medical Center, “about 15% of American 2-year-olds consume as much as 4 ounces of coffee each day”3; and according to studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a staggering 73% of Americans aged 2 to 22 consume caffeine daily, with the majority receiving their caffeine from energy drinks4.
So what does this mean for the future? No one knows! Though I think it is fair to say that children and preteens will continue to consume caffeine in one form or another. From my perspective, the question is not if or when but what form of caffeine young drinkers should be encouraged to consume. According to Caffeine Informer, 8-ounces of arabica coffee contains 80-110mg of caffeine while the average energy drink contains 70-200mg of caffeine5. While this may seem similar, energy drinks are packed with sugars and / or other sweeteners rendering them much less healthy than a cup of high-quality coffee with milk. My take on this? If a child or adolescent is going to consume caffeine, encourage them to take the sugar-free, natural option of drip-brewed arabica coffee, consumed in small amounts. If a child pleads for a full-sized cup, offer them decaf or a half-decaf / half-caffeinated blend, or follow the Canadian guidelines, published below.
North American daily caffeine recommendations.
Canadian recommended daily caffeine limits:
- Ages 4–6: 45 milligrams (~3-4 ounces)
- Ages 7–9: 62.5 milligrams
- Ages 10–12: 85 milligrams
- Adolescents: 85–100 milligrams
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry advises against caffeine for children under 12 and against any use of energy drinks for all children and teens. They also suggest limiting caffeine to at most 100 milligrams (about two 12-ounce cans of cola) daily for those 12-18 years old6.