The Frappuccino generation

Starbucks says it doesn't market to kids. But its sugary coffee confections represent the new cool for teens. While nutritionists are gasping, the caffeinated kids are buzzing.

Topics: Teenagers, Coffee and tea,

The Frappuccino generation

It’s just before 6 p.m. on a Wednesday night in Oakland, Calif., and the Starbucks on Lakeshore Avenue is packed. It has all the usual trappings of bland urbanity and sophistication: brick walls behind a line of baristas, oversize comfy chairs for lounging, and humming laptops scattered amid paper cups. About a quarter of the customers are under age 18. A tween boy out with his mom happily quaffs a milkshake-like Frappuccino, topped with a plastic lid shaped like a dome to accommodate the puffy mound of whipped cream drenched in caramel on top. Out front, teens sit at metal tables drinking their iced mochas, as they chat and check out passersby.

Kara Murray, 16, and Giana Cirolia, 16, breeze in from their summer internships. As part of a teen “leadership” program, Kara is working at the Oakland City Hall this summer, while Giana is deployed 9-to-5 at a local food bank. For these girls, who are both going into their junior year at Berkeley High School, summer is not about just hanging out. Tonight, they’re taking an hour out from their busy schedules to explain to me how gourmet coffee has become the drink of choice at their high school, supplanting not soda so much as lunch altogether. “Think $4,” says Giana. “That’s what you pay for lunch. Not for coffee and lunch. Coffee is lunch. It’s like the new mashed potatoes. Coffee is comfort food, especially when it rains.”

And that’s comfort to Starbucks and other makers of gourmet coffee, who are capitalizing on a boundless new world of teenage customers. To the Beyoncé set, coffee is the new cool. It hops them up with a wallop of caffeine that’s much stronger than soda. As Giana says, “Kids go on a sugar, caffeine high all day.” Nutritionists are not jazzed, of course, especially with childhood obesity on the rise. Those sugary, creamy coffee drinks are packed with enough calories to make a can of Dr. Pepper seem like Slim-Fast.

But the coffee chains are not deterred. In an affront to the earnest efforts of parents, teachers and school administrators to get soda vending machines out of schools, coffeehouses are moving in right down the street to meet demand for sugar and caffeine. There are two Starbucks within two blocks of Giana and Kara’s high school as well as an outpost of the local chain, Peet’s Coffee and Tea, and an independent coffeehouse.

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Always careful to tailor its image as a socially responsible company, and differentiate itself from fast-food brethren like McDonald’s, Starbucks states its “overall marketing, advertising and event sponsorship efforts are not directed at children or youth.” But by creating a place where kids can go that sells sweetened drinks, which make bitter coffee palatable to younger taste buds, cafes are finding a way to hook (and brand) tomorrow’s coffee drinkers earlier. Not that the smart kids don’t know this. After all, when did health concerns ever trump peer pressure and the need to be cool?

“Almost all my older friends drink coffee,” says Kara, explaining that she got into a chai tea latte habit last year, as a sophomore. Going out to Starbucks, “I feel very grown up,” she says. “I hate to say that, but I feel super grown up.” It’s like the thrill of a trip to a fancy restaurant with your friends sans parents. Teachers don’t seem to mind. Many of them let kids bring the drinks into class, whereas eating something as pedestrian and wholesome as a sandwich would be verboten. Although, Kara and Giana report, kids do seem to have a problem with all the coffee at noon. Fourth period, right after lunch, they are really wired, but by sixth they are crashing.

The fancy coffee drinks hold a special appeal to girls. Their cool factor is burnished by celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and bulimic Lindsay Lohan sporting oversize Starbucks cups in countless public appearances. For weight-conscious girls, the blended Frappuccino drinks and mochas can be a socially acceptable way to indulge. “It’s like dessert, but you can have it for any meal,” Giana says. “I feel like a lot of girls drink coffee because they don’t want to eat.” For girls who are trying to hide the fact that they’re skipping meals, drinking coffee gives them cover. (Boys, the girls say, are more inclined to get their caffeine fixes from energy drinks. One of Giana’s friends claims to have consumed seven cans of Red Bull in one day.)

Giana doesn’t buy Starbucks’ claim that it’s not marketing to kids. She points to the section of the menu that’s thick with chocolate, caramel and whipped cream. “That’s the kids menu,” she says, which she notes sagely is not good for diabetes. She compares the way the creamy drinks mask the bitter taste of coffee with how fruity mixed drinks make it easier for teens to down alcohol. “It’s like chocolate milk for big kids,” she says.

For the kids at their school who do drink coffee every day, there’s no stigma to being addicted. On the contrary, teens practically boast about needing their coffee fix, the girls say. Still, Kara has some ideas about where this can lead. “I feel like it’s like cigarettes,” she says. “You start in high school because its cool, and you think that after college you’ll quit, but then you never do.”

Caffeine is the world’s most widely used mood-altering drug, and it doesn’t take much to get hooked. Dr. Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has found that as little as 100 milligrams of caffeine a day can produce a dependency that will induce withdrawal symptoms in many adults, ranging from headache to fatigue to inability to concentrate. There’s more caffeine than that in a single cup of Starbucks coffee. Just three consecutive days of caffeine at that dosage can produce those symptoms when the stimulant fades.

The old adage that caffeine stunts kids’ growth is simply not true. Yet younger children are more susceptible to the behavioral and physical effects of caffeine because of their smaller body size. Like adults who consume too much caffeine, kids may suffer from anxiety, jitteriness, nervousness, mood changes, difficulty concentrating, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and headaches. However, it takes much less caffeine for young kids to feel those effects and to hook them on caffeine.

Marion Nestle, professor of food science, nutrition and public health at New York University, observes dryly that caffeine is not an essential nutrient. Drinking coffee, she says, “is a really bad idea for children. You don’t want children any more hyped up than they need to be, especially because they tend to be so inactive. With so many kids being hyperactive or who have attention deficit disorder, why would you want to add to that?” The sugary coffee drinks only give kids another way to guzzle more empty calories.

The American Dietetic Association offers no guidelines on how much caffeine is acceptable for kids or adults, but preaches moderation. Canadian health officials are not so nonchalant. Health Canada, a government agency, recommends that young kids drink no more than the caffeine equivalent of two cans of Coke a day. An 8-ounce cup of gourmet coffee can have more than three times that.

In the U.S., beverage marketers and food manufacturers are not obligated to disclose how much caffeine is in their products. If the caffeine is naturally occurring in a product like iced tea, the company has no obligation to mention it on the packaging. If it’s added to a product, such as a can of Coke, then the label must mention that it contains caffeine but does not have to say how much per serving.

Back in the ’60s, the beverage industry successfully convinced the government that caffeine was merely a “taste enhancer” in its products, which wouldn’t have an effect on the drinker, according to Griffiths. “That was very much like what the major tobacco companies said about nicotine for so long: ‘It’s just a flavor enhancer, it’s not addictive,’ which turned out to be totally bogus.” Almost a decade ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to require companies to list the amount of caffeine in foods and beverages on the labels. The group is still waiting for a response.

While drinks don’t state it on the bottles, the American Beverage Association Web site does provide a list of the amounts of caffeine in many popular ones. Starbucks, as a cafe, doesn’t have to disclose what’s in the food and drinks it serves. But like many chains, it voluntarily lists the nutritional content of its food and beverages on its Web site and in pamphlets available in the stores. Yet for all the calories and sodium and fat itemized by Starbucks, the company doesn’t say how much caffeine there is in an average Grande Americano or a Venti Iced Caramel Macchiato.

In April 2004, the Wall Street Journal did its own testing in a lab, and found that Starbucks and other gourmet coffee brands had 50 percent more caffeine than 7-Eleven’s coffee. The WSJ’s testing found that the 16-ounce “grande” (medium) cup of Starbucks coffee had 223 milligrams of caffeine. Starbucks told the paper that on average its coffee drink contains 320 milligrams of caffeine in a medium, but that’s still more than three times what Griffiths says it takes to addict an adult. That’s almost twice the caffeine in a home-brewed mug of Folgers.

The National Coffee Association in New York does not track the coffee-drinking habits of kids and teens, yet the data they do have offers some hints that it’s on the rise. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, between 2003 and 2006, the number of young people who said they drank coffee daily jumped from 16 percent to 31 percent. “The coffee shop is the 21st century version of the malt shop, and I think that’s bringing younger people in, and coffee is becoming not only something that they enjoy, it’s becoming something cool and trendy,” says Joe DeRupo, a spokesman for the National Coffee Association.

What troubles doctors isn’t so much that kids consume some caffeine, but that they drink soda and coffee at the exclusion of eating well. Dr. Marcie Beth Schneider, who specializes in adolescent medicine in Stamford, Conn., echoes 16-year-old Giana in saying that among her teen patients, coffee is replacing breakfast. “I deal with teenagers mostly,” she says, “and their No. 1 drink is Starbucks in the morning. They’re not eating there. They’re getting coffee. ” She implores her patients to pick up a muffin or a scone as well — a little actual food. “They use coffee so they don’t have to eat because they believe that it is going to decrease their appetite,” she says.

Caffeine is an appetite suppressant, but according to Jennifer K. Nelson, a dietician writing on MayoClinic.com, its effects last only a very short time and it ultimately doesn’t contribute to weight loss. It is a diuretic, however, which teens will be unhappy to know causes the drinker to urinate more but not lose any excess fat.

When Schneider’s patients complain of insomnia, her first question is: “What are you drinking?” Schneider says many teens use caffeine to stay awake, given they’re not getting the more than eight hours of sleep that teens need.

Kara’s packed schedule shows why. Tall chai tea latte in hand, she explains that for her, it’s about the caffeine. She’s one of the co-editors of the school paper, so she doesn’t get home from school on Tuesday and Wednesday nights until 9 p.m., and then she starts her homework. Every other Thursday night, when the paper’s coming out, she doesn’t get home until after midnight, and then there’s no time for homework. That’s a two-Starbucks day.

Starbucks also provides a place for teens to be together that’s not school, home, work or the library. Professor Bryant Simon, a historian who is the director of the American studies program at Temple University, has talked to dozens of teens and tweens for a book he’s writing about Starbucks. He believes that kids discovered the chain because there are so few public spaces to go in America. It provides them a place where for a few bucks they can stay as long as they like without being hassled. And since it’s not overtly marketed to kids, it feels more cultured than going to a fast food chain, like McDonald’s. Plus, unlike at McDonald’s or Taco Bell, you can move the chairs around to make room for all your friends.

And unlike at a restaurant, no one’s trying to shoo you out the door to make room for other customers who will spend more money. “In a diner, you have to deal with the waitress, you have to deal with her power,” says Simon. “At Starbucks, it seems adult, but there is not much involved with that transaction.” Bonus: Mom and dad won’t worry if that’s where you say you’re going. “Parents trust the brand to let their kids hang out there,” Simon says. That’s not surprising, given that Starbucks encourages parents to bring their kids to the cafes, and now sells such classic children’s books as “The Little Engine That Could,” as part of a program to encourage reading to young kids.

For all its social appeal, Simon believes that it’s not just the chance to hang out with their friends in public away from their parents that keeps kids coming back. “I think that Starbucks knows that by creating pleasant places for teens, and these drinks that teens like, they’re creating lifelong brand loyalty,” he says. “It’s really fashionable to say that Starbucks is selling milk and sugar, but I don’t think that it would work if they weren’t selling a habitual product.”

Michele Simon, director of the Center for Informed Food Choices in Oakland, takes a dimmer view. “What Starbucks is doing is taking a beverage that has traditionally been consumed by adults, and making it attractive to children with sugar and fat. They’re using milk and sweetener as a way to soften the bitterness. You can even think of it as a gateway drug.” It’s irresponsible, she says, for Starbucks to claim not to market to kids while selling highly sweetened and highly caloric beverages that are attractive to them.

Even Giana, who at 16 sees through this sugary caffeinate scheme, is not immune to its lure. She doesn’t drink coffee every day, but if she has a big school project to do, she goes for a double mocha to help her crank it out. Just like a grown-up office worker on a tight deadline at work, going to get the coffee has become part of this teenager’s ritual of being under pressure. “It feels like you are doing something that is incredibly productive,” she says with a laugh.

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