A Double Latte Is Just Another Way to Be Cool
Another Way to Be Cool

By Constance Hays
Copyright 1998 The New York Times
April 12, 1998

The coffee culture has become a teen-age concept. One Starbucks coffee shop in New York City is standing-room-only for the under-18 set on weekend nights, and both the beverage and the hangout seem to have parents' blessings.

But what about caffeine -- that "drug" -- and its effect on growing bodies?

"We had the whole discussion with my bio teacher about this," said Michelle Gort, 15, and a Starbucks habitue, "and she was like, no, it doesn't do anything."

Coffee consumption is up among 10- to 19-year-olds across the country, according to a recent study, leaving its mark on the adolescent lexicon. Teen-age boys from one Manhattan high school refer to one group of young females as "the latte girls," stereotyping them by a choice of coffee -- a little espresso and lots of milk -- that would not have been widely understood five years ago. References to "java junkies," who drink coffee to excess, to become "jazzed on java," crop up in movies and on television.

Coffee containers appear regularly in high school classrooms with the teachers' permission. Thanks to a lingering association with adult sophistication, a cup of coffee has gained the kind of cachet that cigarettes enjoyed years ago.

A teen coffee fad raises fears about caffeine.

It is both stimulant and social vehicle. "My friends stay up late and use coffee sometimes to wake themselves up," said Sarah Church, a 15-year-old who attends Berkeley High School in Berkeley, Calif., where espresso and iced coffee are in. "We're sophomores, and we have the most homework of anybody."

Impact on Calcium

According to the National Coffee Association, whose annual Winter Coffee Drinking Study tracks how many cups are drunk by various demographic groups, 5 percent of the 10- to 19-year-olds surveyed said they drank some kind of coffee in 1988. In 1997, 8 percent drank coffee.

Over that same 10-year period, the percentage of youths drinking decaffeinated coffee fell to 0 from a mere 2 percent. That may be a statistical blip, said Robert Nelson, president of the coffee association. Or it may reflect the sentiments of a generation raised without fear of caffeine.

Concerns still center on caffeine's effect on calcium absorption, but studies so far have been inconclusive. Caffeine is a drug, says Dr. Don Hensrud, an assistant professor of preventive medicine and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic. "The data aren't all that strong in terms of severe disease and caffeine," he said, "but what I find is there are many more subtle effects that can affect people quite a bit, including insomnia, morning headaches and weekend headaches, gastrointestinal side effects like constipation or diarrhea."

"There can be calcium loss in the urine, which is significant for young people who are trying to establish good peak bone mass early in life, before they begin to lose bone," Hensrud added.

The Starbucks coffee chain, a ubiquitous purveyor of coffee to the young and restless, says it is not trying to attract teen-agers. "As a company, we don't market to teens," said Cheri Libby, a spokeswoman for the chain. "We have a lot of different types of profiles of people who drink coffee. But we don't even track that segment."

Caffeine is already a dietary staple for many American children, who start drinking colas and other caffeinated sodas as toddlers. Soft-drink companies have long gone after the 13- to 15-year-old market with brands like Mountain Dew, Josta or the recently introduced Surge, in which caffeine is an essential component.

"Iced coffee and cappuccino drinks pick up where milkshakes leave off," said Tom Pirko, a beverage-industry consultant with Bevmark LLC, who recommends marketing to teen-agers as a way of securing the future coffee drinkers.

"By junior high and high school, you have pretty good activity, and that's where the loyalties are born. It's a mid-teens market. Coffee marketers are thinking about younger and younger people -- not pulling kids out of nursery schools, but catching them in the middle of that soft-drink trend."

One expert says the abuse of caffeine by teen-agers can play a role in eating disorders like anorexia. "I have seen a lot of females who drink a lot of caffeinated beverages during the day at the expense of eating," said Heidi Schauster, a clinical dietician specialist who works with anorexic and bulimic children in the eating-disorder program at Children's Hospital in Boston. "Most of the time it's diet soda, but more kids are drinking coffee." But even she isn't too worried about coffee.

"It's one of those vices that we can still have," she said. "I'd certainly rather have my kids start drinking coffee than picking up a cigarette."

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