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Coffee Doesn’t Stunt Your Growth

The idea that coffee hampers growth is rooted in advertising campaigns and historical misconceptions. In reality, there is no reason why coffee should be treated differently to other caffeine sources.

This article was first published in The Skeptical Inquirer.

I started drinking coffee around age fourteen and used to stop at a coffee shop almost every day on the way to high school for a cup. When I was doing rowing from 6–8:30 a.m., class from 9 a.m.–3 p.m., band from 3:30–5 p.m., and then working at a telemarketing company from 6–11 p.m., the lovely bean juice was a godsend. I am five feet and 1.5 inches tall, and everyone in my life has always joked that my years of coffee drinking led to my diminutive stature. But while the idea that coffee stunts your growth has long been held as an obvious truth, there is very minimal evidence to back that up.

The origin of this myth is a bit nebulous. Claims attempting to regulate coffee consumption are numerous throughout history and modern day. King Charles II banned the beverage in 1675 in England, and at some point before the seventeenth century, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church forbade its members from drinking it. In more recent times, regulations have mostly been limited to recommendations about daily intake, but claims ranging from coffee’s healing benefits to its potential to harm you abound.

Much of the idea that coffee stunts the growth or development of children can be traced to an advertising campaign for Postum, a roasted grain coffee alternative first marketed in 1895 by C. W. Post, of Post Consumer Brands (previously Post Cereals). Post was a student of John Harvey Kellogg, who ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium and was a notorious proponent of pseudoscientific remedies such as yogurt enemas. Post picked up a belief that caffeine was to blame for many bodily ills from Kellogg.

Postum ads heavily focused on the supposed evils of coffee, from heart damage to addiction, and even employed a cartoon ghost mascot named Mister Coffee Nerves. One particular type of advertisement concentrated on the dangers of coffee for children, with statements like “Held back by Coffee … this boy never had a fair chance” alongside an image of a schoolboy writing a test in an otherwise empty classroom.

Postum’s claims that coffee “hampers proper development and growth” weren’t motivated by science but rather profits. As for what science actually has to say regarding caffeine and kids, it’s a bit complicated. There is no evidence that caffeine consumption can directly stunt growth. “Caffeine does not meaningfully impact how tall a child gets,” according to pediatric endocrinologist Roy Kim. While coffee can have an appetite suppressant effect, a tie between that and hindered growth has never been proven. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that caffeine and coffee are good for kids.

Coffee is not the only source of caffeine in most children’s lives. Sodas, chocolate, energy drinks, and even over-the-counter medicines can all contain the drug. Just like in adults who overindulge in roasted bean juice, kids can experience anxiety, irritability, headaches, or an upset stomach from caffeine consumption. And, because they are generally smaller, it takes less caffeine to see these effects in young ones. Just like an adult who has an espresso too late in the afternoon, children can have their sleep disrupted by caffeine, which can lead to issues at school or other health problems.

According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, there is no proven safe dose of caffeine for children. But, as many sources point out, that is in part because there have been relatively few studies into the true effects of caffeine on kids. So, while you should probably limit the caffeine kids get, especially nearer bedtime, there is no reason to believe that coffee is any more dangerous than other caffeine sources such as soda, chocolate, or tea. In some cultures, such as Latin American or Cajan ones, coffee consumption throughout childhood is the norm.


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