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Coffee and Kids: Half Filled or Half Empty of Benefits?

July 5, 2012 By:
Elyse Glickman, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Frapped, whipped, blended or heated, coffee has stirred up some popularity among an increasingly younger generation of fans, along with a touch of controversy on its benefits: What's good in theory for one generation could be bad for another.

A recent coffee study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine certainly adds to its appeal among people 50 and older. In conjunction with the AARP, researchers from the National Institutes of Health followed more than 400,000 healthy men and women between the ages of 50 and 71.

Neal D. Freedman, lead author of the study and an investigator with the division of cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute, in Rockville, Md., found the more coffee study participants drank, the lower their mortality risk tended to be.

However, the debate percolates on about whether or not teens and kids should be exposed to coffee and its caffeinated side effects. Before the charge of the Red Bull, and a herd of other energy drinks, teens and kids were starting to get a kick out of coffee in its many forms, thanks to both the baristas and the marketers behind Starbucks and other high-profile chains.

For nearly two decades, the plain "morning Joe" necessary to fuel many adult souls through a long day's work has evolved into a phenomenon that appeals to people of many ages and many palates.

Though mom-and-pop coffee shops prevalent in college towns and chic neighborhoods played a role early on in the trend (remember "Central Perk" from the definitively '90s television series Friends?), the buzz on what's new can be found as closely as the run-of-the-mill supermarket, where coffee shops are now operated inside either independently or by the markets themselves.

If it's OK for adults, what about their kids? The experts have varied opinions.

Dr. Tomas DePaulis, a Vanderbilt University research scientist who recently published his own study on coffee, says that parents who keep their kids as far away from coffee as possible could be doing them a disservice.

He says coffee in moderation isn't bad for kids and, as with adults, it can help improve concentration and may help children do a little better on tests for this reason, he claims. He also points to another coffee study in Brazil that suggests that kids who drink coffee with milk are less likely to have depression than other children.

On the other hand, the National Institutes of Health, which ironically also was involved in Freedman's study of coffee's impact on people over 50, found that "a child's caffeine consumption should be closely monitored."

The NIH findings suggest coffee may negatively affect a child's nutrition, possibly replacing nutrient-dense foods such as milk.

A child may also eat less because caffeine acts as an appetite suppressant, according to the NIH study. Restriction or prohibition of coffee may also be a wise move when you look at children who are hyperactive or have other behavior-related disorders, it added.

Philadelphia native Dr. Charles Shubin says the coffee question recently came up on a visit to the area when his two young grandsons wanted to try a sip.

As the director of pediatrics at Mercy Family Care in Baltimore, Shubin offers some very strong arguments about why children should not drink coffee; the biggest is that caffeine is a drug, albeit a legal one.

"Though caffeine is OK in moderation for adults, you should not introduce kids to coffee until they can fully grasp the concept of moderation," insists Shubin. "This usually happens in the middle of adolescence. Based on emotional development, in girls it would be 11 to 12, and for boys it would be two years older, because they need to be in a place psychologically where they can take responsibility for themselves."

Some may counter that children are exposed to coffee early in Latin American and European cultures the way they are exposed to beer and wine. If they are exposed to "adult" drinks early, they may develop the tools to handle them responsibly, goes the argument.

Shubin, however, counters that although it has been said that France and Germany may have fewer alcohol problems in their teen population compared to American teens (who, of course, can't legally touch it until they are 21), health studies in those countries tell a different story, with higher incidence of liver difficulties and other illnesses that may occur later in life due to prolonged exposure.

"One thing that's a common problem with telling kids 'no' is that when you prohibit something, it becomes more desirable," acknowledges Shubin. "We tell some kids not to drink coffee, only to discover they are going to find a way to do it, especially teens.

"It is more important to consider health factors, however. Caffeine is a drug, and it's a drug with significant potential toxicity that can affect the heart, the brain and other parts of the body. Kidneys, for example, can be affected as caffeine is a diuretic and it is something we should not have young or growing children exposed to."

Shubin adds that "going out for coffee" socially is an adult behavior, just like "going out for cocktails." While coffee is available legally, parents need to take responsibility, and he maintains the medical position that kids need to be raised healthy, which, in turn, means they should be raised without exposure to or the influence of drugs, even if they are legal like caffeine or liquor.

But caffeine is present in readily available things like soft drinks and chocolate. Yes, but even there, overdoing it may involve consequences. Concludes Shubin: "Prohibiting coffee is not just an opportunity for a teachable moment with kids, but also adults. We all really need to be aware about what we do to our bodies when we make a choice to eat or drink certain things, and be aware of what is not so good for us if we go overboard."

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