Children and caffeine: How much is too much?
Caffeine(1) is naturally present in tea, coffee and chocolate, but is also added to certain fizzy drinks, popular among children. What are the recommended guidelines on children’s caffeine intake? And how do you make sure your kids aren’t getting too much?
The effects of caffeine
In moderate doses, caffeine can have a positive effect on the body. It helps you stay alert and concentrate better. But in higher quantities, depending on the individual, caffeine can cause problems like irritability, headaches and insomnia. People who are more susceptible to the effects of caffeine may even start to feel grumpy, get palpitations or have trouble getting to sleep after just one cup of coffee(2)(3).
In higher doses, caffeine actually produces effects similar to those of adrenaline: it kickstarts your metabolism, blood pressure, breathing and heartbeat. In extreme circumstances it can cause shaking, headaches, dizziness and digestive discomfort, including abdominal cramps, nausea and even vomiting. High consumption over a long period of time can lead to addiction, which means you might experience withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop your intake (headaches, irritability and tiredness).
How much caffeine is safe?
It’s difficult to give an exact figure for the maximum amount of caffeine your body can tolerate before you start to feel any undesirable effects. It often takes up to three or four hours for the majority of caffeine absorbed to be eliminated from the body. For some people, this may even take up to 10 hours because of their genetic makeup or other factors (pregnancy, simultaneous alcohol consumption or liver disease). Regular consumption of high quantities of caffeine can boost both positive and negative effects on the body.
By taking into account the speed at which caffeine is eliminated and its potential accumulation in the body, nutritionist Dr. Jean-Michel Cohen has come up with a suggested recommended maximum intake of 300mg of caffeine every six to eight hours. Health authorities advise less then 300mg to 400mg a day(4) for a healthy adult, in order to avoid or limit side-effects.
Caffeine is found in the leaves, fruits and seeds of many different plants. It occurs naturally in coffee, tea and cocoa as well as more exotic infusions like guarana and mate. But caffeine is also regularly added to other products, including fizzy drinks, iced tea, energy drinks and certain types of medication.
The caffeine content of coffee varies depending on the type. There’s at least 400mg per litre of caffeine in instant coffee (60mg per cup). Tea and chocolate-based products typically contain less than this(2)(3).
Fizzy drinks manufacturers aren’t obliged to mention a caffeine content of less than 150mg/l on labelling, much less the concentration. Analysis shows that the concentration can vary up to three times in caffeinated colas with less than 30mg/l of caffeine in supermarket brands and more than 100mg/l in Pepsi® and Coco Cola®. This figure reaches 118mg/l in Diet Coke®. The caffeine content of iced tea varies between 30 and 70mg/l (6).
Energy drinks are the only products to have clear labelling of caffeine content. The concentration is generally between 300 and 400mg/l (2).
How much caffeine is safe for children?
The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) has considered the impact caffeine might have on young children. According to the experts: “Children generally have the same capacity for digesting caffeine as adults. Studies have shown that food and drinks containing caffeine have no noticeable effects on hyperactivity or on the attention spans of children when consumed in moderate amounts. However, in more sensitive children, high doses of caffeine can lead to temporary effects like agitation and irritability or anxiety.”
The EUFIC hasn’t set a specific limit for caffeine intake in children, but it’s still important to take into account the difference in body weight between adults and children. Based on the maximum recommended intake for adults(4) for example, a child weighing 20kg (the average weight of a seven-year-old) should consume a maximum of 100mg of caffeine a day.
In the US and Canada it’s thought that children could be more susceptible to the effects of caffeine, and the recommended maximum is fixed at 2.5mg per kilo of bodyweight (2). The maximum daily intake recommended is therefore reduced to just 50mg for a child of seven.
As a rule, children don’t tend to drink large amounts of tea or coffee. Their caffeine intake will be mainly down to chocolate and, increasingly, fizzy drinks. The EUFIC estimates that drinking fizzy drinks can add up to 160mg of caffeine a day in a ten-year-old child(3). In older children, quantities can be even higher, especially if they drink high-caffeine energy drinks such as Red Bull®, Monster® and Burn® regularly. Paediatrician Dr. Marie-Laure Frelut** says: “Parents often tell me that their kids are overexcited or can’t get to sleep at night. This makes you wonder about their caffeine intake.”
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