The harmful health effects of soda on teens and adolescents has prompted many households to ban the caffeinated beverage, but children may still be getting moderate doses from various foods and drinks. According to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, caffeine intake among kids, even preschoolers, has become more common throughout the years due to various sources such as soda, energy drinks, and even snacks like marshmallows.

Most adults are aware that caffeine is a stimulus and that it can make children hyperactive, but few recognize the other symptoms it can lead to. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that can greatly affect a person in moderate to high doses. First, the stimulant enters the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine, and within 15 minutes after it’s consumed, its effects can begin to take place. When caffeine is present in the body, it can take approximately six hours for one half of it to be eliminated. Typically, the stimulant increases alertness but can also lead to reduced fine motor coordination, cause insomnia, headaches, nervousness, dizziness, an increased heart rate, and blood pressure, says the Mayo Clinic.

As caffeine’s presence continues to be found in more foods and drinks, increasing in availability in the U.S., a team of researchers part of a Food and Drug Administration investigation into the safety of caffeine-containing foods and drinks, especially for children and teens, has analyzed the trends in caffeine intake between 1999 and 2010. Until now, recent descriptions of caffeine or energy drink intake in the U.S. and its potential adverse effects have mostly been done in adult populations. The lack of scientific data compelled these researchers to not only unravel how much coffee American youth drink, but also the impact of increasing energy drink use — an area of interest for physicians and policy makers.

The trends and demographic differences in average caffeine intake among children and adolescents were assessed by using the 24-dietary recall data from the 1999-2010 NHANES. These surveys involved a total of 22,000 U.S. youth from ages 2 to 22. The children and their parents were asked questions about what they ate or drank the previous day to accurately assess their diets.

The findings revealed approximately 73 percent, or three in four children, consume at least some caffeine, mainly from soda, tea, and coffee, according to the news release. Although soda use declined over the decade, energy drinks have become an increasingly common source of the stimulant. The average caffeine energy drink intake was between 60- to 70 milligrams daily, which is the amount in a 6-ounce cup of coffee or two sodas. In 2010, 10 percent of daily caffeine intake came from energy drinks for 19- to 22-year-olds, two percent for 17- to 18-year-olds, and three percent for 12- to 16-year-olds. However, for those 12 and under, the amount from energy drinks was found to be minimal to none during the study.

Despite not accounting for a big portion of kids’ caffeine intake, the rise of energy drinks "is a trend researchers are going to keep their eyes on," said Amy Branum, lead author of the study and a health statistician at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, CTV News reported. The FDA considers caffeine a safe substance, however, the agency does not regulate the caffeine content of energy drinks, unlike cola because it is marketed and considered dietary supplements. Cola was found to be the most common source of caffeine throughout the study for older children and teens. For preschoolers, it was the second most common after tea. Although many schools stopped selling soda due to obesity concerns, the sale of energy drinks has led to a great cause of concern among policymakers.

Recently, Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks is trying to get his city to place a legal drinking age on energy drinks, after a string of studies that question the health adverse effects of these beverages. The primary cause of health concerns lies in the high concentrations of caffeine in energy drinks. A 2013 study found the combination of caffeine and taurine in energy drinks may lead to fatal heart rhythm complications by increasing a healthy adult’s heart rate over time.

Policymakers, like Parks, may try to implement laws to limit energy drink-based caffeine consumption among young adults to decrease their potential detrimental health effects. As the intake of energy drinks continues to steadily increase, physicians and researchers want consumers to take extra precaution, especially youngsters. Dr. Stephen Daniels, head of Pediatrics at University of Colorado, believes that caffeine — no matter the source — has no nutritional value and there is not enough data to determine safe levels for children. "Evidence that even very young children may regularly consume caffeine products raises concerns about possible long-term health effects, so parents should try to limit their kids' intake,” NBC News reported.

Parents can proactively limit their children’s caffeine intake by only purchasing beverages labeled “caffeine-free,” limiting overall intake of soda, and encouraging them to opt for water rather than caffeinated beverages. Food items that contain caffeine such as jellybeans and marshmallows should also be evaluated my parents to monitor consumption.

Source: Branum AM, Rossen LM, Schoendorf KC. Trends in Caffeine Intake Among US Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2014.