current issue button
about TXCC button
back issues button
manuscript guidelines button
resources button
Acquire PDF for full version of this article.
  (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader®)

Texas Parenting News

Popular drinks: Double whammy in sugar and caffeine


Before buying drinks for family picnics and sports events, find out about the ingredients, especially sugar and caffeine. You may be surprised at what you find.


Read the label
The Nutrition Facts portion of food labels contains important information about contents, including sugar and calories. On a beverage label, in particular, look for the grams of sugar and the number of calories one serving contains.

Assume, for example, that a soft drink label says 39 grams of sugars. The term sugars here refers to both the naturally occurring kind, such as lactose in milk and fructose in fruit, as well as sugar added during processing. The same label says 140 calories. It’s important to note that all these calories may not come from sugar alone. Some may come from fats and carbohydrates.

Then look at the ingredients, which are listed in order by weight from most to least. The soft drink label may say “carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors, caffeine.” The label does not specify the weight or percentages of these ingredients individually, nor does it tell us how much sugar has been added. The point is, however, that we need to be wary of any drink in which sugars appear high in the list as well as a list that contains multiple kinds of sugars.

Quick tip: Learn more about reading food labels from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website:

Sugars: In the soft drink label above, a mental alarm should sound when seeing that the second ingredient is high fructose corn syrup, a sugar commonly added to a wide range of popular drinks. Researchers believe that “excessive consumption of high fructose corn syrup found in many beverages may be an important factor in the obesity epidemic.” (See the results of a study conducted by Princeton University at

Actually, syrup of any type is a sugar, as well as honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrates, fruit nectars, and many substances ending in ose. Sucrose is table sugar, for example. Don’t confuse it with sucralose, the main artificial sweetener found in Splenda®.
The American Heart Association recommends that preschool and school-age children have no more than about 3 or 4 teaspoons of added sugar a day. For women, it’s about 6 teaspoons and men about 9 teaspoons. Too much sugar is unhealthy for children and adults because it can lead to weight gain, thus increasing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Sugar also causes tooth decay.

Quick fact: Beverages account for nearly half of all added sugars in the average American diet. (See this fact colorfully illustrated at And among beverages, the sugar drink of choice—by 79 percent—is carbonated beverages.

Artificial sweeteners and substitutes: To avoid sugar in drinks, many of us turn to diet sodas or choose artificial sweeteners to stir in coffee or tea. Artificial sweeteners include saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low®), aspartame (Equal® and NutraSweet®), and sucralose (Splenda®). These sweeteners have virtually no calories. They can be an alternative to sugar for diabetics, and they are considered generally safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration if consumed in small amounts.

No artificial sweetener, however, is a magic bullet for a sweet taste with zero negative effects. At least one recent study indicates that diet drinks contribute to weight gain anyway. (See the results of this study conducted by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio at Aspartame, for example, raises blood sugar levels (related to diabetes) and seems to interfere with signals that tell your brain you’re full.

What about stevia (Stevia in the Raw®, Truvia®, Pure Via®), a newcomer on the market? It’s not an artificial sweetener because it’s not created in a lab. And even though derived from a plant and widely marketed as natural, it’s not technically natural because of the chemical process used in extracting it from stevia leaves. There’s no evidence that stevia helps control weight more effectively than artificial sweeteners, and some observers have expressed concerns about side effects of stevia extract as well as whole-leaf stevia.

Perhaps the rule of thumb for any artificial sweetener is to use it sparingly. (See more on the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners at

Caffeine: This stimulant occurs naturally in some beverages, notably coffee and tea as well as in cocoa and chocolate milk. You won’t see caffeine either by name or amount in the Nutrition Facts on a drink label because it’s not a nutrient. But if it’s added to a beverage, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires listing it in the ingredients. That’s why it appears in the soft drink label mentioned above, although it won’t say how much.

The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that young children should not drink caffeinated beverages on a regular basis. The result can be jitteriness, upset stomach, headaches, sleep problems and other adverse effects that may last for up to six hours. (See more about caffeine’s effects on kids at

Too much caffeine in adults can manifest as headaches, restlessness, and anxiety. The Mayo Clinic suggests cutting back on caffeine if your total daily intake exceeds 500 mg a day.


Sugar and caffeine in popular drinks
The list below provides typical or sampled amounts of sugar and caffeine in popular beverages. To learn the amounts in specific beverages, look them up on the manufacturers’ websites.

Soft drinks: A typical 12-ounce can of soda contains enough sugar to contribute 100 to 150 calories to a person’s daily diet. Drinking three or four cans a day, as many teens do, can easily add up to the amount of calories normally consumed in a meal. By contrast, a typical 12-ounce can of a diet soft drink has no calories. (For more on how Americans are drinking themselves into obesity, see

Among soft drinks, 7Up® and Sprite® contain no caffeine, but a regular Coca Cola® or Pepsi® contains 35-38 mg. Don’t be misled by fruity-looking sodas: Mountain Dew® is notorious at 54 mg of caffeine, and orange-flavored Sunkist® is not far behind at 41 mg. Diet colas contain about the same amount of caffeine as regular colas. Incidentally, the “Zero” in Coke Zero® refers to calories, not to caffeine. (For a handy chart of caffeine content in soft drinks and other beverages, see

Fruit drinks: An 8-ounce serving of HEB 100% Juice, cranberry-grape blend, contains 39 grams of naturally occurring sugar. Vitamins and minerals in 100 percent juice make it preferable to soft drinks, but it’s by no means lower in calories. An 8-ounce glass of the HEB juice contributes 150 calories. If weight gain is a concern, nutrition experts suggest small and infrequent servings. (See tips from the Mayo Clinic at

A better alternative is fresh whole fruit. A whole orange, for example, has only about 60 calories and contains fiber, which is more effective than juice in helping you feel full. A worse alternative is fruit punch, which may contain little or no fruit juice and as much sugar as a soft drink.

As a rule, fruit drinks contain no caffeine, but beverage makers are racing to cash in on the popularity of energy drinks (described below). Last year Starbucks introduced its Refreshers line, iced drinks made with fruit juice, stevia, and green coffee extract. A 12-ounce can contains 40-55 mg of caffeine. This year Mountain Dew introduced Kickstart, with 92 mg of caffeine in a 16-ounce can, and two entrepreneurs launched Frava, with 200 mg of caffeine in a 16-ounce bottle.

Smoothies: Made with fruit, yogurt, and ice, a smoothie may sound healthy until you read the nutrition information. A 12-ounce cup of strawberry-banana smoothie made by McDonald’s, for example, contains 44 grams of sugar and 210 calories. Why so many? In addition to the strawberry and banana puree, the fruit base contains grape and pineapple juice concentrates as well as added sugar. (Find nutrition information about other McDonald’s specialty drinks at

Smoothies generally don’t contain caffeine unless they are made with coffee or chocolate.

Sports drinks: Gatorade, the iconic sports drink, aptly demonstrates the reason you should read beverage labels carefully. The label on an 8-ounce bottle of regular Gatorade® says 14 grams of sugar and 50 calories per serving, which doesn’t sound like much. But if you look at “Servings per container,” you’ll see that it says 2.5. In other words, if you drink the whole bottle, you get two and a half times the sugar and calories, or 35 grams of sugar and 125 calories.

Sports drinks were designed to help athletes replace water, electrolytes (primarily sodium and potassium), and carbohydrates lost in vigorous physical activity. The problem is that sports drinks are marketed today as an alternative to soft drinks, and many parents think they’re healthier. Consumption by children with only routine physical activity may add unnecessary calories to their diet.

According to a report by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, sports drinks contribute unnecessary sugar and sodium, displace important micronutrients, and may increase the risk for tooth decay. (See the report at

Most sports drinks contain no caffeine.

Energy drinks: An 8-ounce bottle of an energy drink typically contains six to nine teaspoons of sugar, or 96 to 144 calories. One study by the Mayo Clinic put the amount at ¼ cup. (See a report of the study at Some energy drinks contain artificial sweeteners; 5-Hour Energy® contains sucralose, for example.

The most common ingredient in energy drinks is caffeine, typically 70 to 140 mg, although the amount may vary widely. A shot of 5-Hour Energy contains 207 mg—and it’s only 2 ounces.

Since appearing on the U.S. market in the late 1990s, energy drinks have become enormously popular. Adolescents and young adults often consume the drinks for a quick boost or to stay awake after missing sleep. They may feel a jolt of energy, but the effect doesn’t last long (only about 90 minutes) and it may be accompanied by headache and heart palpitations and sometimes followed by a crash.

Energy drinks, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, are never appropriate for children and adolescents. (Learn why in the article “Kids Should Not Consume Energy Drinks, and Rarely Need Sports Drinks” on the academy’s website, Actually, the FDA has received reports of several deaths and scores of illnesses linked to energy drinks. (Find out about the drinks and the casualties at

One disturbing trend is the addition of alcohol to energy drinks, either by the manufacturer or the consumer. Young people may add alcohol to get a buzz and increase stamina for late-night partying. Because caffeine is a stimulant and alcohol is a depressant, the effect on the body is like stepping on the gas pedal and brake at the same time. The result can be disastrous.

Tea: Plain tea contains almost no calories, but if you stir in sugar, add 16-20 calories per teaspoon.
Tea is relatively low in caffeine. An 8-ounce cup of black tea contains 14-61 mg of caffeine, while the same amount of green tea contains 24-40 mg. The longer the brewing time, the more the caffeine. (Find the quantity of caffeine in different types of tea at

Coffee: Like plain tea, plain coffee contains almost no calories. If you stir in half-and-half, add 20 calories per tablespoon, and for sugar, 16-20 calories per teaspoon. Buying specialty coffee drinks, however, can really jack up the calories. A 9.5-ounce bottle of Starbucks Vanilla Frappuccino® made with low-fat milk, for example, gives you 31 grams of sugar and 200 calories. (For nutrition information on Starbucks bottled drinks, see

An 8-ounce cup of regular coffee contains about 100 mg of caffeine, while the same amount of decaffeinated coffee contains 2-12 mg. (Find the quantity of caffeine in different types of coffee at



Fat-free half-and-half: Doublespeak?
Supermarkets have recently begun selling a refrigerated liquid creamer, fat-free half-and-half, a name that Dr. Andrew Weil calls an oxymoron. (Read his blog on the subject at

According to Weil, half-and-half is ordinarily half milk and half cream and thus about 12 percent fat. The fat-free variety actually contains a tiny bit of cream, but it’s too small to acknowledge. The makers have replaced the butterfat with corn syrup and added chemicals that produce a cream-like texture.

The HEB brand of the fat-free version contains 3 grams of sugar and 20 calories for a 2-tablespoon serving. HEB’s regular half-and-half contains 1 gram of sugar and 40 calories for the same size serving.



Heads up, Mom and Dad: What’s in your drink?

Alcoholic beverages: According to a recent study, Americans get almost as many empty calories from beer and wine as from soft drinks. (See a news report on the study at A 12-ounce can of Budweiser® has 145 calories, for example, and the same size can of Bud Light® has 110 calories. A five-ounce glass of wine contains about 100 calories.

Ordinarily, beer contains no caffeine, but what’s this? Some caffeinated beers have appeared on the market in recent years. The caffeinated varieties are brewed with coffee or tea, or caffeine is added during processing. According to experts, caffeinated beer poses a threat to public health because the caffeine disguises the effects of alcohol and can lead to binge drinking and dangerous behavior. That’s what happened to at least 32 college students who had to be hospitalized. (Read more at

Consequently, at least seven states have banned the production and sale of the second type (beer with caffeine added), and the FDA is working to block its production nationwide. (See the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s fact sheet on caffeinated alcoholic beverages at

At least one caffeinated wine has turned up, but it’s in Europe. Buckfast, which is made innocently enough by Benedictine monks in England, is sold in a 25-ounce bottle and contains 281 mg caffeine. Ounce per ounce, that’s about four times the caffeine in a cola soft drink. The wine is blamed for a great deal of rowdy behavior and even crime in Scotland, where it’s a favorite among young men. (Read more at


Ideas for low-sugar, low-caffeine drinks
Giving up on cool and refreshing summer beverages? Not so fast. Consider the following low-sugar, low-caffeine—and low-cost—drinks:

Water plain or fancy: Nothing beats plain water for quenching thirst. Fill a pitcher or jug with water and ice for a cool summer beverage. Health experts recommend drinking water before, during, and after play and exercise.

If water is too bland for your taste, add a few slices of citrus fruit, such as lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit. Or add one of these: crushed mint leaves, sliced cucumber, or peeled and sliced fresh ginger.

Diluted fruit juice: Fill a glass three-quarters full with iced water and top it off with a quarter cup of 100 percent fruit juice for a mere 30 calories.

Herbal tea: Experiment with different herbal teas to find one without added sweeteners that’s pleasant to the taste. Or try herbal teas flavored with fruits such as blueberry or raspberry or with spices like cinnamon or vanilla. Adding a teaspoon of sugar or honey will cost you only 16-20 calories.

Watermelon slush: Blend 4 cups of frozen and diced watermelon, juice from 2 limes, 2 tablespoons of honey, and ¾ cup water. This yields four 1-cup servings, at about 80 calories each.

Vary the recipe by omitting the honey or lime juice, or by substituting the watermelon with different fruits or different quantities of fruit, as listed below. Adjust the calories accordingly.
Apple, 1 medium: 81 calories
Banana, 1 medium: 105 calories
Blueberries, 1 cup: 80 calories
Cantaloupe, 1 cup cubed: 60 calories
Grapes, 1 cup: 58 calories
Honeydew melon, 1 cup cubed: 60 calories
Orange, 1 medium: 60 calories
Papaya, 1 medium: 119 calories
Peach, 1 medium: 37 calories
Pear, 1 medium: 98 calories
Pineapple, 1 cup cubed: 76 calories
Strawberries, 1 cup: 45 calories


Prevent pertussis


Pertussis, or whooping cough, is on the rise in Texas. In 2012, six children died of pertussis, five of whom were younger than 3 months of age. The sixth was a 3-year-old.

Pertussis is caused by bacteria. It’s spread by tiny droplets given off when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.

The infection may cause intense coughing, choking, pneumonia, brain damage, and death. Because children cannot be vaccinated until they are at least 2 months old, consider these preventive steps:
If you are pregnant, get vaccinated.
If you have a baby, make sure all family members as well as teachers and others with whom the child comes in contact are vaccinated.
Vaccinate babies and children according to the recommended schedule: 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, and 15-18 months of age.
Consider booster vaccinations for children 11-12 years old as well as adults.
Have everyone in the family wash hands before and after using the bathroom or changing diapers, cooking or serving food, and eating.
Have everyone in the family wash hands after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose; touching another person’s hands; handling garbage; and touching frequently touched areas such as doorknobs, faucets, and kitchen surfaces.

Wash hands using this method:
Wet hands with water and apply soap.
Rub hands and fingers at least 20 seconds, or long enough to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
Rinse hands.
Dry hands with a clean cloth or paper towel. If in a public place, use the heat dryer. Or use a paper towel to dry hands and turn off the faucet before throwing the paper towel in the trash.

If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Rub hands and fingers until dry. If dry sooner than 10 seconds, you did not use enough sanitizer. Apply more and repeat.

Important: Antibacterial soap is not more effective than plain soap, and it’s more expensive. In addition, it may be contributing to the rise of super bacteria that are resistant to traditional antibiotics. Research suggests that a major ingredient, triclosan, may disrupt endocrine and muscle function. The FDA is expected to release a review of the chemical this year.


School starts soon: Drive safely


Many schools will open their doors for the 2013-2014 school year in late August. Observe these important safety rules:

Stop for school buses. Most states, including Texas, require that drivers come to a complete stop for school buses with flashing red lights, regardless of which direction you’re going. Once the lights stop flashing, the bus moves on, or the driver signals that it’s OK to pass, you may proceed.

Watch for children. Children may be gathered at a bus stop or on a street curb, waiting to catch the bus. They may also dart out across the street to catch or exit a bus. Be alert to children (and adults) riding bicycles to and from school, and stay out of dedicated bike lanes.
Obey the posted speed limit. In schools zones, the speed limit is usually 20 miles per hour, indicated by a sign with a flashing light. Slow down to the speed limit when approaching the zone, and observe the post speed limit as you leave the zone.

Put away devices. Most states, including Texas, prohibit the use of all hand-held devices in school zones. Save the use of your cell phone until you can pull over and stop.

Don’t leave children in the car. Late summer and early fall days often have searing hot temperatures in Texas. Don’t leave children alone in a parked vehicle while you walk an older child to the classroom door or run into the store for milk. The temperature can soar within minutes to deadly levels, and children can die of heat stroke.

Organize safe routes to school. Learn more about a new program, Safe Routes to School, that you can organize with neighbors, teachers, and community leaders. As the name implies, the program aims to develop safe routes that children can use to walk or bike to school. See