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

Published on: November 01, 2006

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

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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