Should kids and teens be drinking coffee or tea, and when can parents safely introduce these drinks to the curious ones? We spoke to an experienced dietitian-nutritionist to get some expert insights on the subject.
Do you remember the first time you had coffee or tea? Can you recall how old (or young) you were? Personally, tea has been a part of my life for the longest time.
While I can’t remember the exact age I started drinking tea, I’m very sure that I was already having Chinese tea as young as nine while enjoying dim sum with my parents. Though I had my first taste of coffee when I was 12 (the bitterness put me off and made the introduction to kopi o super memorable), the coffee-drinking habit only kicked in my early 20s when café-hopping became the ‘cool’ thing to do.
However, if you were to ask me now if I would let my nine-year-old drink coffee or tea, I’d most likely say no.
Coffee and tea may have negative effects on kids, tweens, and even teens
For adults, our usual cup of joe can give that much needed energy boost when consumed in moderation. The same can’t be said for kids, though. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) actually discourages children and adolescents from consuming any caffeinated drinks due to the possible side effects. Among these, as found by other studies and advisories, include insomnia, hyperactivity, headaches and dizziness, and nausea, just to name a few.
So what do you say to your kiddo or teenager if they decide that they’re ready to graduate from a babycino to a cappuccino (or iced lemon tea)? Should we as parents reply with a hard ‘no’? If that’s the case, is there an ‘appropriate’ age to introduce them to the filtered coffee you like so much, or enjoy a cuppa caffeinated tea during tea time?
We got in touch with Karlien Duvenage of Karlien Dietitian, a registered dietitian-nutritionist with over 15 years of experience and a parent, for an expert’s insight into caffeinated coffee and tea consumption among children and adolescents.
There’s limited research on the safety of coffee and tea consumption for children
“When it comes to questions related to nutrition, I seldom give a definite ‘no,’ and this principle extends to the consumption of coffee and tea by children and teenagers,” Karlien said. Having said so, she urged parents to consider various factors and exercise caution before introducing their children to these popular drinks.
While it’s true that there are studies (like the aforementioned ones) that list the potential side effects of caffeine consumption, Karlien pointed out that these primarily focus on caffeine found in soft drinks and energy drinks. She added, “Research on the safety and overall effect of coffee and tea intake in children is limited. Though not well-conducted, studies on caffeine intake in children and teenagers generally indicate adverse effects on growth and development. However, most of these focus on caffeine consumption in the United States through soft drinks and energy drinks, which may differ from the effects of traditional coffee and tea consumption around the rest of the world.”
Karlien explained that, when consumed in moderation (around three to four cups per day), coffee and tea may offer health benefits on top of enhancing our performance and focus for adults. High intake (more than four cups per day), on the other hand, may result in more negative health effects than positive ones.
So, what does this mean for kids and teens who want a cuppa?
For Karlien, it starts with understanding that our children are not mini-adults, no matter how much they want to be. “Compared to adults, children and teenagers have a lower body weight and have different nutritional needs and sensitivities. Their bodies are still in the growth and development phase, which require higher intakes of nutrients like iron and calcium. Coffee has been found to inhibit iron absorption and moderately reduce calcium absorption,” she explained.
But what about children from cultures where drinks like tea are a dominant part of their daily lives?
Tea is an integral part of many cultures around the world. Being Chinese, I’ve been accustomed to having pu’er and tieguanyin with meals since a young age. Our former HoneyKids Editor Kate, who’s British, has fond memories of sharing a (small) cuppa with her grandparents after classes during her primary school years.
Does this mean that children from these cultures, by virtue of their ethnicity and genes, have better tolerance towards caffeinated tea? Karlien agreed that genetics – along with dosage, source, and habitual caffeine intake – does affect the impact of caffeine on the nervous system. However, she also mentioned that ethnicity alone are not reliable indicators of how caffeine will affect an individual.
“This is because all children are generally more sensitive towards caffeine. Adding another variable to their already fluctuating mood and sleep patterns may not be wise. It’s better to wait until they’re older to regularly consume caffeinated beverages and food,” Karlien pointed out.
The big question: Is there a ‘safe’ age to allow our children to try coffee or tea?
Is there a ‘safe’ age where our kids can level up to a mocha or matcha? Here’s what the dietitian-nutritionist said, “While no definitive studies prove the safety of tea and coffee in children, applying common sense can guide us in assessing the risk. An occasional sip or small cup is probably safe, but not as a regular offering.”
Following the AAP’s guidelines, it’s highly discouraged to offer any form of caffeinated beverages to children under 12 years old. “Having said so, small amounts of decaffeinated coffee and child-friendly herbal teas like chamomile, rooibos, or peppermint can be considered relatively safe for children aged two to 12. It’s advisable to refrain from serving any tea or coffee to children under two as these can fill their tummies and affect their appetite,” Karlien advised.
The AAP’s guidelines also specify that teens between 12 and 18 should limit their caffeine intake to less than 100mg per day, which is approximately the caffeine content of a regular cup of coffee (around 200-250ml) or two cups of tea. “Even if you’re sure that the coffee or tea contains less than 100mg of caffeine, it’s important to check in with your teen as everyone responds to caffeine differently. Monitor their sleeping patterns, anxiety level, and withdrawal headaches after they’ve had their cup of coffee or tea and reassess,” Karlien said.
What can we do to teach our children to make suitable drink choices?
In Singapore, cafés and bubble tea joints are very accessible (yes, some of the menu items contain caffeinated tea). Kopi and teh are also available at the nearest kopitiam and hawker centres at relatively affordable prices. While parents can still supervise their little ones’ food and drinks intake, the same can’t be said for the more independent tweens and older teens.
It’s important for us as parents to ensure our children are aware of the risks of caffeinated coffee and tea. This is so that they are empowered to make suitable choices for themselves. For Karlien, modelling healthy behaviour is a crucial way to teach our children and setting gentle boundaries where needed. “As parents, we should mostly be responsible for deciding what, when, and where our children eat and drink,” she said.
As a fellow parent who enjoys visiting cafés occasionally with her kids, she has some tips to share from her personal experience. “I prioritise choosing a café or restaurant that offers options that suit our needs. I always lean towards nutritious choices, and prefer my kids to have something to eat and drink a glass of water over expensive drinks with limited nutritional value. When it comes to special drinks, I recommend fruit-based or milk-based options (plant-based or cow milk), like a filling fruit smoothie that provides essential nutrients for their growing bodies. For occasional treats, a hot or cold chocolate* milk drink or a milkshake is a viable option, although it’s important to be mindful that it contains added sugars. If these options aren’t available or not to your liking, low or non-caffeinated alternatives like herbal teas or decaffeinated coffee can be considered.”
* Caffeine is a naturally occurring compound present in over 60 plants aside from tea and coffee beans. It’s also present in guarana (a common ingredient in energy drinks) and cocoa. Consequently, chocolate and hot chocolate also contain small amounts of caffeine. However, a 250ml serving of hot chocolate typically contains around 5mg of caffeine, significantly less than the approximate 100mg found in a standard cup of coffee. Green tea also contains caffeine, but certain varieties such as hojicha provides only ±8mg of caffeine per 250ml cup.
In short: Consider all factors, assess the risk, then decide.
One thing I notice about children is that they like to feel included. That’s why the very little ones enjoy following you around, imitating the things you do, and asking to taste what you’re eating.
My two year-old once asked if he could try my cup of coffee. Thankfully, the café offered babycinos, so I got him one (sans cocoa powder and marshmallow) and told him that it was ‘baby coffee’. Similarly, our ex-Editor’s preschooler would politely ask if she could make her a cup of tea as well when the adults were having tea time. Kate would then make her some caffeine-free herbal tea (in her own little cup!) and it has since been a family routine.
It’ll probably be a long time till these two littles start asking to drink ‘adult’ coffee and tea. But when the time comes, at least we now know what factors to consider, the available alternatives, as well as how to educate them on the suitability of these drinks.
A huge thank you to Karlien Duvenage from Karlien Dietitian for sharing these insights with us! You can check out her informative blog on all things nutrition-related, including the responsive feeding approach and myths about picky eating.