Caffeine Researcher Responds to UK Chain's Minimum Coffee Drinking Age

Costa customers better get their IDs ready.

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Teens of England are bracing themselves to get carded at coffee shops, which may start checking IDs for a minimum caffeine-consuming age. A new policy recently unrolled at Costa Coffee — Europe’s largest coffee chain — comes amidst a wave of regulations designed to curb caffeine use in teens by limiting their access to energy drinks. It gives employees the choice to deny the sale of caffeinated beverages to anyone under the age of 16.

But at least one nutrition expert thinks we should cut the teens some slack. Danielle Battram, Ph.D., an associate professor at Brescia University College’s School of Food and Nutritional Sciences, tells Inverse that caffeine, like many other substances, can be harmful in large amounts, though she’s not convinced that a ban on coffee will do much to curb teen caffeine use.

“It doesn’t seem to be something we should be overly concerned with,” she says. “I always think of things like frappuccinos and stuff like that. The calorie count could be a meal. I’m a little more nervous about giving them that than giving them a little bit of coffee.”

There is some research suggesting that teens are more susceptible to the negative side effects of caffeine, like anxiety or trouble sleeping, but there are established guidelines for safe caffeine consumption for adolescents.

In Canada, the limit is 2.5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, and in Europe, it’s 3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. That translates to 147.5 milligrams a day in Canada for a 130-pound teen and 177 milligrams a day in England for the same teen. The American Association of Pediatrics maintains that adolescents shouldn’t have more than 100 milligrams of caffeine per day — that’s about one cup of brewed coffee. The numbers vary, but they can be taken to suggest that caffeine, in moderation, is nothing to worry about.

The problem, as with all substances, is overdoing it. For example, in 2017, a teen in South Carolina died from chugging a Mountain Dew, a latte, and a 16-ounce energy drink, overwhelming his system with caffeine. Most teens, says Battram, aren’t coming anywhere near that dangerous limit. She points to a 2017 review on the amount of caffeine consumed by 275,000 children, adolescents, and adults across the US, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, and Canada between 1997 and 2015.

“In terms of being harmful, when they compared all that data of what children and adolescents are consuming, what they found is that in nationally representative samples, kids are consuming far less than the safe limit,” she says.

Some methods of caffeine consumption may help teens reach that danger zone more quickly than others, though. Energy drinks, which up to 41 percent of teens used in the three-month study period in one study, appear to be the primary driver behind caffeine overconsumption. The UK has already taken action on that front. In March, several major UK supermarkets announced a ban on the sale of energy drinks with 150 milligrams of caffeine to under-16s, and in August, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the government would consult on a blanket ban on selling energy drinks that meet that criteria.

Battram says that people consume coffee differently than energy drinks, suggesting that the two beverages should be regulated differently.

“The nice thing about coffee that I always tell people is that you sip coffee, it gets into your body slowly. It’s different than consuming those energy shots that you down, then all of the sudden 200 mg of caffeine hits the bloodstream very quickly,” she adds.

Though its beverages definitely qualify as sippable, Costa is the country’s first coffee distributor to limit teen access to caffeine. Whether the policy is warranted or not, it’s worth noting that the trade publication Caffeine Insider says that “Costa Coffee has high caffeine amounts for espresso-based coffee.” Considering the chain has 2,400 stores throughout the country, UK teens will no doubt feel the crash.

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