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Monday, August 28, 2006

An egg McMuffin would be better

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.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Aug. 27, 2006 | 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 What Starbucks is doing is taking a beverage that has traditionally been consumed 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.

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.

.................. 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.

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, 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.
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. "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

A Carmel Frappacino with whipped cream has 430 calories per 16 ounces. A regular coffee has 15 calories. A quarter pounder has 420 calories.

Yet, a Frappacino has almost no nutritional value.

These drinks disguise the taste of the bitter coffee yet are ladened with calories. So anyone who works or lives near a high school has stepped over children with their ventis and grandes with whipped cream and caramel chattering away before slipping away for a smoke.

I personally think their coffee is overroasted, but it works for some folks.

posted by Steve @ 2:33:00 AM

2:33:00 AM

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