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Kids and Caffeine: An Unhealthy Combo

Kids Crave "Liquid Candy"
Whether they're decking the halls or cruising the malls, kids are popping open soda cans and guzzling caffeinated beverages like never before. In a holiday season filled with festive parties, it's not unusual to hear parents say, "Sure, you can have another Coke."

True, a couple cans of pop won't kill our kids. But health experts warn that we may have underestimated the effects on a child's growth and development.

"Caffeine is mildly addictive," notes Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI.) "Twenty years ago, teens drank twice as much milk as soda pop. Now they drink twice as much soda pop as milk."

Indeed, the soda consumption of teenage boys, the all-time pop-guzzling champs, nearly tripled from 1978 to 1994, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research service. In 1994, nearly three-quarters of teen boys drank an average 34 ounces, the equivalent of almost three cans daily.

All told, children and teens down more than 64 million gallons of soda per year. Not only are teens drinking more; soda consumption for 6- to 11-year-olds doubled between 1978 and 1994.


Soft Drink Companies Market Through Schools, Ads
While soda companies (not unlike cigarette companies) deny any attempt to reach the under-12 market, a look at both demographics and marketing suggests otherwise. Research shows that coffee consumption rises between ages 15 and 24, and declines thereafter.

Meanwhile, growing numbers of cash-strapped school districts are reaping millions from soda manufacturers who pay for the right to sell their products in cafeterias and vending machines. Often the marketing deals allow companies to place ads in strategic locations like the school gym or school buses. Savvy media messages, crafted with youth in mind, link soda with desirable traits like energy and winning.

"It's crazy to be pushing junk food on kids at schools," protests Jacobson. Several years ago, his organization petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to require manufacturers to list caffeine as a product ingredient. To date, CSPI has not received a response.

Parents are well-advised to remember that caffeinated soda is a non-nutrient that can cause sleep problems, irritability, and stomach upset, says Mary Rimsca, M.D., director of health for Arizona State University and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. In addition, the phosphoric acid that causes carbonation in soft drinks hinders the absorption of calcium.

"It binds the calcium," says Rimsca. "We are starting to see increases in incidents of osteoporosis at a young age. It's just beginning to come out in studies."


Advice for Parents
You don't want to be The Grinch Who Stole Pepsi, but you also want your children to get the nutrients they need. Some suggestions from health experts:

  • Limit soda consumption to parties or special occasions only. Most pediatricians recommend no more than one 12-ounce can per day, tops.
  • Make sure soda is not a regular substitute for milk or other calcium sources.
  • Avoid the "added caffeine" drinks like Coca-Cola's Surge or Pepsi's Josta.
  • Become "soda savvy." Mountain Dew weighs in with 55 milligrams of caffeine per 12-ounce can; Sunkist has 40, Coke, 45, Pepsi, 37. Sprite is caffeine-free.
  • Talk with school administrators, food service workers, and school nurses. Does your district have a contract with a soda manufacturer? Express your concerns about soda in schools.
  • Talk frankly with kids about nutrition and marketing messages. "I know you like Coke or Pepsi and it's okay to have once in a while, but the ads that make it look as if you'll play better in gym if you drink soda are filled with lies. You need strong bones to play well and bones need calcium. Soda doesn't have calcium."


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