| Tweens + Teens | Child Health + Development

A latte a day -- Coffee culture and its youngest consumers

For Kathy Wood, a Puyallup mom of three girls, a ritual unfolds during the hours of school drop-off and pick-up. With her 3-, 7-, and 8-year-olds in the car and a craving for an iced double-tall nonfat latte, she'll hit the drive-thru coffee shop, fittingly named "Java Junkie." The girls often get their own drink -- hot cocoas with whipped cream -- and they even have their own punch card. Wood quips, "I am a big (coffee) addict, and my kids know the Starbucks logo better than they know Barney!"

Whether on the run or as an outing, the parental need for caffeine means that not only parents but kids are taking part in our coffee culture. Frequently, the kids join in for a between-meal beverage or baked goodie of their own. Many times, that means a treat -- be it a Top Pot glazed doughnut sporting 490 calories, a cinnamon roll laden with 520 calories, or a sweet drink. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), "A (Starbucks) grande hot chocolate with whole milk and whipped cream has the calories (450) and saturated fat (14 grams) of three hot dogs. It's not a beverage. It's lunch."

You can customize by size, milk variety, or skipping the whip. But when parents and kids go for coffee, it means that sugar, fat and caffeine come along for the ride. However, parents and health professionals say there is a place in kids' lives for a treat. The message is balance -- making calorie-laden cafe fare just one part of a child's healthy diet and lifestyle.

Dr. Daniel Friedman, a pediatrician with Renton Pediatrics, says parents should make choices based on their child's caloric intake and activity level. He says, "A high-calorie treat once in a while for a child who otherwise is not consuming too many calories a day is OK. An active, healthy child who is eating well and doesn't have a weight problem can get away with it. Kids burn more energy than adults." On the other hand, he says, "A treat should be just that. It shouldn't be a daily expectation."

And Friedman says caffeine should be avoided. "Preschool and school-age children ought not to be consuming caffeinated beverages. Caffeine has an impact on the behavior of young children," he says, such as hyperactivity and reduced attention. It can also cause stomachaches.

Alicia Dixon Docter, MS, RD, a nutritionist who works in Outpatient Adolescent Medicine and on the Obesity Action Team at Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center takes a similar common-sense approach. "Going through the drive-thru every day is probably over the top," she says, suggesting that parents hone their own sense of what's appropriate. But in her view, a few-times-a-week treat fits into a child's diet just fine.

From a nutritional point of view, the U.S.D.A. Food Pyramid for a child between age 8 and age 14 allocates approximately 2,000 to 2,200 calories per day, Docter says. After meeting all their nutritional needs, a child in that age group would have a discretionary allowance of about 250 to 300 calories, which would allow for a Starbucks low-fat marionberry muffin or even a croissant.

For adults, Friedman says, espresso drinks with nonfat milk are fine. A 16 oz. nonfat latte is 160 calories. Of her latte a day, Wood says, "I don't worry too much about myself because I'm not getting the most fattening drink." In the spectrum of more indulgent beverages, Starbucks' original grande-size Coffee Frappuccino Blended Coffee has 260 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat, which the CSPI deems "not bad." But the other flavors, such as Mocha and Java Chip, deliver 420 to 550 calories and about 10 grams of saturated fat. In a CSPI article entitled, "Good Cup, Bad Cup: How to Survive in Latte Land," authors Jayne Hurley and Bonnie Liebman write, "The Java Chip packs 15 grams (of saturated fat ) -- as much as two pork chops." Friedman says, "Five hundred calories is 25% of the total calories an adult should be having a day."

Tara Herndon of Leschi takes her 6-year-old daughter to Vérité/Cupake Royale in Madrona more for an after-school something-to-do than for the iced tea. She says her daughter's typical treat there often consists of a "baby-cake" and a trip to the park across the street. Another favorite, Vérité's banana bread, provides a healthier alternative. Herndon says, "It has a lot of sugar, but I don't feel I'm giving her a Lik-'M-Stick or something."

Sometimes Herndon and her daughter will share a treat at Vérité. According to Docter, sharing is a great way for parents to handle treats, especially because many baked goods are super-sized. "Splitting makes sense financially, energy-wise (calorically speaking), and in modeling (behavior)."

Susie Harrington of Mercer Island says her 15-year-old daughter Mackenzie eats healthfully at home, so she's not so worried about the nutritional impact of Starbucks visits. "I am more concerned about the expensive habit of going there all the time. All those drinks really add up," says Harrington, a mother of three.

Harrington also worries that that the coffeehouse trend, like cell phones, is skewing younger and younger, down to elementary school children. And she is concerned when she sees parents ordering caffeinated drinks for their kids, given the potential for addiction. But overall, she appreciates Starbucks as a safe social outlet for teens and trusts her daughter's nutritional judgment. Harrington gives her kids the message of moderation: "There are days you are going to indulge, days you watch it, and you balance it with exercise."

In fact, says Starbucks spokesperson Alan Hilowitz, "We know that more than one-third of beverages sold are lighter-calorie, lower-fat options such as brewed coffee, nonfat lattes, Cafe Americano, Frappuccino Light blended beverages and Shaken Iced Tea."(Nutrition information is available at www.starbucks.com.)

For parents of the littlest customers, finding a balance can mean managing the clamoring for cocoa from the backseat. Wood's girls have learned that some drive-thru times are just for Mommy. She says, "The word 'treat' means it's something extra-special and not something they get every time. If I let them have it every day, it wouldn't be special anymore. They accept that."

Michelle Feder has two young sons and a twice-a-day habit.

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