Does Coffee Stunt Your Growth? Here’s What Science Says

I remember sneaking into the kitchen to steal a sip of mom's coffee and getting caught and scolded. You wouldn't believe the lecture I got on how it would stunt my growth. And guess what, it's been thirty years, I'm barely five feet tall, and I highly doubt it's because of that one sip. I think it's high time we let go of the rumors and cliches and started thinking critically.

Does coffee make you short?

Is cappuccino safer than espresso?

Do energy drinks stunt your growth?

Today we'll find answers once and for all!

Stunt kid growth

Does Coffee Stunt Kids' Growth? The Origins of the Myth

If you're like me, meaning over the age of 25 (I won't tell your secret to anyone), there's no reason to worry about caffeine affecting your growth. After all, it doesn't dissolve bones, even if you decide to take a coffee bath (though I wouldn't recommend it). It's the kids we are most worried about. Even sodas aren't as bad as coffee, at least that's what we all believe. 

But where does this certainty stem from? Why is it common knowledge? Who was the first to prove coffee bad for kids and adults both?

It all comes down to the power of advertising. Similar to a firm belief that an engagement ring should come with a diamond, the growth-stunting properties of coffee were first nothing but a compelling advertisement. And we have Charles William "C. W." Post to thank for that. The breakfast cereal inventor was also the one to create a grain-based drink called Postum as a caffeine-free alternative to coffee. To steer Americans away from the growing popularity of coffee, the Post Cereal Company started a smear campaign against caffeine.

Some of their claims look downright hilarious today. Postum was free of "the evil effects of caffeine - a habit-forming drug." It could apparently be drunk hot and cold with ice and lemon. Moreover, it was safe for children! 

Once the instant form of the drink was developed, the attack on coffee intensified. That's where a 1933 Postum ad comes in. Alarmingly named "He never had a chance", the post claimed coffee was the cause of bad grades and even showed survey results that claimed only 16% of the children who had coffee got good grades (I wonder how they got that number). Finally, the ad stated that coffee was a reason for undernourishment ("85% of the undernourished children received coffee once or more daily"). And that's where the claim that coffee "hampers proper development and growth" comes in. Sounds familiar?

Some of the Postum ad slogans are truly amazing, and it's no wonder the campaign made the drink popular for decades. "Scolded for C's that really stand for Coffee" and "Perhaps it's his parents who should stay after school!" are among my personal favorites. I have to give credit where it's due because the ads look extremely compelling even in our day and age.

Now imagine your granny and grandpa being subjected to those ads with pictures of unhappy children for decades. It's no wonder the idea of coffee being responsible for stunted growth and development became common knowledge, even if it wasn't backed by any real scientific research. At best, the ads shared numbers based on surveys, and I can imagine how those were held. The only thing that surprises me about this marketing campaign is the lack of lawsuits against the false claims of the effects of caffeine.

You might be curious enough by now to learn that Postum is still available for sale. The trademark and trade secret belong to Eliza's Quest Food since Kraft sold them in 2012. But it's $10.50 for an 8-ounce jar, so I'd rather stick with coffee.

That's the surprising, hilarious, and slightly concerning story of how advertisers made the whole world believe coffee affects development. But does coffee actually stunt your growth? Let's find out!

Caffeine’s Classification. Is It Safe?

It's no coincidence we call ourselves coffee or caffeine addicts. I, for one, can't get my brain into gear without a big cuppa in the morning, and I need at least another fix with lunch to beat the food-induced lethargy. 

Scientists classify caffeine as a psychoactive substance, as it affects our brain chemistry and cognitive function. Cocaine, heroin, MDMA - all fall under the same category. That makes caffeine dangerous, right? Not really. According to the FDA, caffeine is a substance generally recognized as safe (GRAS) when used in "beverages in accordance with good manufacturing practices."

However, with the growing number of foods and beverages containing caffeine, the FDA announced their intentions to conduct in-depth research on caffeine’s effects on children and adolescents. While the Administration will not present age restrictions for purchasing caffeine-infused products, they are concerned with potential health hazards of introducing a strong stimulant into goods marketed towards children.

While we can argue till we're blue in the face that the FDA is a Big Soda sell-out, the fact remains that the main food safety authority in the States doesn't find caffeine (and therefore, coffee) to be a hazard. However, that doesn't detract from coffee's addictive qualities.

Coffee, Caffeine, and Calcium

Now that we know caffeine is safe for our bodies let's dig deeper into the mythical relationship between coffee and stunted growth. In the early days of caffeine research, it was connected with calcium deficiency. And as we all know from middle school Science class, calcium is crucial for bone structure and density. 

So does coffee stop growth because it robs our bodies of calcium? Not even close! According to Caffeine and the calcium economy revisited study, for every 6-ounce caffeinated cuppa you get, your calcium level drops by merely 4.6 mg per day. The researchers recommended adding 40 mg of calcium for every 6-ounce serving of coffee to counterbalance this negligible influence. In layman terms, it translates to popping a calcium supplement or adding a dash of milk to your morning cuppa. You can even go with a cappuccino or latte instead of espresso if you're that worried.

For kids, calcium is even more crucial, as their bodies are still growing. So let's take a closer look at how coffee affects children from conception to birth and adolescence.

Can You Drink Coffee When Pregnant or Breastfeeding?

According to medical studies, healthy pregnant women can consume up to 300 mg of caffeine per day without any negative effects on their health or embryo development. Mayo Clinic recommends a lower dose of 200 mg per day. In most cases, having a cup or two per day is perfectly safe without switching to decaf or half-caf. However, caffeine is known to elevate blood pressure, which can be a serious risk during pregnancy. Therefore, you should always consult your doctor to find out which foods and drinks are safe for your body and baby.

Breastfeeding isn't much different from pregnancy in terms of caffeine consumption. Having a cup or two per day will keep you alert without affecting the breast milk caffeine content too much. In some countries with rich coffee culture (think Brazil and Colombia), new mommies introduce babies to coffee in the cradle, sometimes even mixing a few drops with the milk in the bottle. While that seems like an overkill to me, enjoying a morning cuppa while breastfeeding should be fine. Please don't take my word for it, and always consult your doctor to be sure.

Coffee When Pregnant or Breastfeeding

Does Coffee Ruin Baby Bones?

With thousands of papers written on caffeine and its influence on the human body, there's practically no research when it comes to babies. It's understandable, as there aren't many parents willing to submit their babies for medical experimentation. That's why even the most detailed systematic studies lack data on caffeine's effects on calcium deficiency and bone density in children under the age of three.

When it comes to older children and teenagers, the data is there, but it's incomplete and hardly enough to draw reliable conclusions. Besides, most studies deal with children who consume caffeine in soda drinks, not coffee. Considering the proven positive effects coffee has on our health, especially when coupled with milk and free of sugar, these studies are hardly a reliable source of information. Still, scientists believe the safe dose of caffeine is under 2.5 mg for every kilo (2.2 pounds) of body weight per day. So for a hundred-pound teen, a safe dose would be under 113 mg, amounting to a small cup of coffee per day. 

Does coffee stunt growth if kids drink more than a cup per day? There's no hard proof of it, either way, so don't lie to your children when they ask you about this. However, there's plenty of evidence of caffeine's adverse effects for kids, and it's even worse than keeping them short.

How Does Caffeine Affect Kids?

Let's start simple. Why do you drink coffee? You may like the taste or the cute barista in your favorite coffee shop. You may even enjoy the brewing ritual or the health benefits, like reduced risk of stroke and cancer. But I bet you love the instant energy influx you get the moment you smell coffee. Drinking it is even better, as it wakes you up and keeps you going through the most boring meetings and the long hours of the time crunch.

And it will likely have the same effect on children. Now imagine your hyper eight-year-old but twice as loud and energetic. If you can't keep up with them on a good day, giving them a cup of coffee will be a huge mistake. That's also a solid reason to limit soda and energy drinks consumption in your household.

You might think that dealing with an energizer bunny of a child is the worst a cup of coffee can do, but it's not. Caffeine is known to reduce sleep duration in children, letting them sleep as little as three to five hours per night instead of the healthy eight to ten hours. Why is that so bad? Not only will you have to deal with a tired, moody, and surly child after so little sleep, you also risk your kid's development. Sleep is crucial to brain and body development and restoration, and a lack of sleep has been connected with obesity, diabetes, and even heart conditions. 

So the question should be, "How much sleep will you lose because of coffee?" instead of "Is it true that coffee stunts your growth?" After all, it's sleep deprivation that's behind many health problems in children and adults. And if you feel that caffeine is the cause of that, cutting back on coffee, energy drinks, and soda consumption is a good way to stay safe.


On a side note, I highly recommend "Why We Sleep" by Matthew Walker if you still think you can go on five hours of sleep per night without suffering the consequences. It was an eye-opener for me!

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Is Coffee Safe to Drink at Any Age?

The short answer is yes. But the devil is in the detail. For example, decaffeinated coffee is much safer than regular beans, especially if the Swiss water method is used. It leaves less than one percent of initial caffeine content without adding any harmful chemicals or affecting the taste much. 

But we all know decaf isn't what you're worried about when you're asking, "Can coffee stunt your growth?" Let's go over numbers provided by the medical researchers for each age group:

  1. Women looking to get pregnant, as well as those who are pregnant, should keep their caffeine consumption under 200 mg per day. Multiple studies claim caffeine has no adverse effects on male and female fertility in doses under 400 mg per day
  2. Babies should not be allowed coffee. However, breastfeeding mothers can safely consume 200 mg to 300 mg of caffeine per day without any adverse effects. This amounts to one or two cups of regular coffee per day. If you switch to decaf, you can have even more coffee without risking the baby's sleep schedule.
  3. Toddlers under the age of three should not have coffee. There's no research to connect caffeine with health issues, and that's the only reason I recommend you don't give coffee to young children unless you want to conduct medical research of your own.
  4. Children between the ages of 3 and 12 can have up to 2.5 mg of caffeine a day for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. That's under 56 mg for a 50-pound child, so a couple of sips of your espresso won't do them any harm. Sodas and energy drinks are another story.
  5. Adolescents up to the age of nineteen can have the same amount of caffeine as kids (around 1 mg per pound of weight per day). However, as teens are taller and heavier, they can safely consume around a cup of caffeinated coffee every day without issue. But that's only true for kids who don't drink any soda.
  6. Adults can safely consume up to 400 mg of caffeine a day. For regular coffee, that amounts to two to four cups or espresso shots, depending on how strong you like your java. Any more than that, and you're likely to experience the holy trinity of caffeine overdose symptoms, including headache, insomnia, and irritability.
  7. Older people can safely consume between 200 mg and 300 mg of caffeine per day. However, personal medical history and existing conditions should be taken into account. Most research papers claim no negative effects of caffeine on bone density, cardiovascular and psychological health when coffee is consumed in moderation (one to three cups per day).
Coffee age

Remember that these are general safety recommendations based on a wide array of studies, some of which are bound to be biased or poorly performed. Besides, we are all special snowflakes, and our bodies process caffeine in different ways. While an espresso shot might be enough for you, your colleague may need to triple the dose to feel a slight energy boost. 

Visit your doctor, do your own research, watch your kids' behavior, and listen to your own body. No one knows your daily routines, habits, and body reactions better than you do. So take agency over your health and the wellbeing of your family!

Bottom Line: Does Caffeine Stunt Your Growth?

For some, no amount of medical research and hard evidence is proof enough that coffee is perfectly safe when drunk in moderation. I can only hope that you stop lying to your children and find a better way to steer the kids away from caffeine-packed sodas, energy drinks, and espresso shots. When your son or daughter comes asking, "Will coffee stunt my growth?" be honest and explain that coffee can be addictive and harmful for young bodies, but in no way will it make them shorter. Feeding lies (even if they are small white lies) to your kids is the shortest way to killing their critical thinking, and that's a commodity our world lacks as it is.

References

  1. Official Bulletproof Coffee Recipe. (n.d.). Retrieved from
    https://www.bulletproof.com/blogs/recipes/official-bulletproof-coffee
  2. Young, S. (2017, April 10). Stop putting sugar in your coffee immediately, and stir this in instead. Retrieved from
    https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/coffee-add-salt-not-sugar-better-flavour-taste-cup-caffeine-bitterness-sodium-a7675916.html
  3. Helmenstine, A. M. (2017, December 29). Why Adding Salt Makes Coffee Taste Less Bitter. Retrieved from
    https://www.thoughtco.com/does-salt-in-coffee-reduce-bitterness-607366

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Renat Mamatazin

Renat Mamatkazin

2020/12/21

Founder and owner of Lion Coffee and 3ChampsRoastery, 1st place winner of Ukrainian Barista Championship 2017. Interested in travelling, football and Formula-1 (besides coffee, of course).

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