How much caffeine is it safe for children to consume - and what are the side effects?

Should energy drinks be banned for under 16s? [Photo: Getty]
Should energy drinks be banned for under 16s? [Photo: Getty]

The sale of energy drinks to all children under 16 could be banned by the government.

Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has told the cabinet he wants to introduce an age limit on the selling of the products, which are high in caffeine and sugar.

It follows a consultation by the Department of Health into how energy drinks could be damaging kids’ health, potentially causing a string of problems including head and stomach aches, as well as hyperactivity and sleep issues.

The popularity of energy drinks among the younger generation has been soaring in recent years.

Two-thirds of children aged 10 to 17 and a quarter of six to nine-year-olds consume energy drinks, according to a government announcement released last year.

But younger children have been caught by the energy drink bug, too, with figures from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) revealing that more than two-thirds of UK children aged 10 to 17-years-old, along with nearly a quarter of those aged six to nine drink energy drinks.

And that means children and teenagers could be consuming a huge amount of caffeine.

READ MORE: Jamie Oliver is determined to deter children from buying energy drinks

The British Nutrition Foundation, warns a single can of energy drink can contain more caffeine and vastly more sugar than children should consume in an entire day.

According to The Guardian, a 250ml can of Red Bull contains about 80mg of caffeine, roughly the same as a similarly sized cup of coffee, but three times the level of Coca-Cola.

How much caffeine should children be drinking?

Though there are no official UK recommendation on caffeine consumption levels in children and teenagers, the EFSA has advised a safety level of 3mg/kg bw per day is proposed for habitual caffeine consumption by children and adolescents.

For an average sized UK 14 year old (weighing about 50kg) this would result in an upper daily limit of 150mg of caffeine.

“Generally, the amount of caffeine a child can consume in a day before it has a negative affect is the equivalent of three cans of fizzy drink if they are teenagers, the equivalent of two cans if they are aged 10 to 12, or fewer than two if they are under 10,” explains Dr Diana Gall from Doctor-4-U.

“However, even if the amount of fizzy drinks a child has is kept low, they could still easily build up their caffeine intake by having chocolate, coffee, iced tea or frozen yoghurt.”

The concern about caffeine consumption in children comes following growing evidence suggesting that energy drinks can have a detrimental effect on children’s health.

According to some reports certain energy drinks contain up to 12 teaspoons of sugar – more than twice the maximum daily intake for adults!

Many brands of energy drinks contain 160mg of caffeine per 500ml, but a 10-year-old should not consume more than 99mg per day.

READ MORE: Easy ways to cut your child's sugar consumption in 2019

What does too much caffeine do to children? [Photo: Getty]
What does too much caffeine do to children? [Photo: Getty]

What are the side effects of too much caffeine in children?

According to Dr Gall caffeine can have all sorts of negative effects if more than a small amount is consumed regardless of age.

“In both children and adults, the effects of too much caffeine can include an upset stomach, headaches and jitters,” she says.

“Too much caffeine also affects the central nervous system and therefore influences concentration, sleep and heart rate.”

Longer term, excessive caffeine consumption has been linked to cardiovascular problems.

“For children, the amount of caffeine it takes to create problems is less compared to adults, and the risk increases the younger they are and the less they weigh (the amount you weigh changes the dose response),” Dr Gall continues.

“If a child has heart problems, nervous disorders or anxiety, then caffeine can make such conditions worse.” have put together some other health reasons to limit kids' caffeine consumption:

  • Kids often drink caffeine contained in regular soft drinks. Kids who drink one or more sweetened soft drink per day are 60% more likely to be obese.

  • Caffeinated drinks often contain empty calories, and kids who fill up on them don't get the vitamins and minerals they need from healthy sources.

  • Too many sweetened caffeinated drinks could lead to dental cavities from the high sugar content and the erosion of tooth enamel from acidity.

  • Caffeine is a diuretic that causes the body to eliminate water (through peeing), which may contribute to dehydration.

How to reduce your children’s caffeine consumption?

Dr Gall says she wouldn’t recommend caffeine for children at all, but as this is something that is found in so many sweet products it’s impossible to avoid it.

“If you want to keep your children protected from the potential negative effects, then it’s best to keep track as much as possible of the caffeinated foods and drinks they’re consuming,” she suggests.

“Consider alternatives with minimal caffeine and sugar where possible, and if you do need to cut down a child’s current caffeine intake, then it’s best to do this gradually day-by-day.

“If a child who is used to having lots of caffeine suddenly stops consuming it, then they could experience withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, muscle aches and irritability,” she adds.

Are energy drinks contributing to obesity epidemic?

No doubt the government is hoping the potential banning of energy drinks to under 16s could contribute to tackling childhood obesity.

The topics of sugar and childhood obesity has been causing much controversy recently.

Latest figures have revealed that unhealthy eating and a lack of exercise mean one in three pupils are now overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school.

Further stats revealed earlier this year that one in 25 children in England aged 10 or 11 are severely obese.

Measurements on children’s weight and height show the number of children classed as ‘severely overweight’ rose from 15,000 in reception to 22,000 by their final year of primary school.

The data was collected as part of Public Health England figures, and was analysed by The Local Government Association (LGA)

Last July experts revealed that Britain’s obesity crisis could be starting as early as birth, with some suggesting that as many as three quarters of babies are being fed too much.