The 7 Worst Drinks for Your Kids

How to avoid hidden sugar and caffeine found in popular kids' beverages

Boy drinking soda

Kelly Knox / Stocksy United

We all know how important it is to keep kids hydrated, especially while they're playing sports or having fun running around outside with their friends or they're outside in the summer heat.

What kids drink is as important as how much they drink, especially since there are so many choices for kids today. Some of these beverages seem healthy, but looks can be deceiving.

Many beverages on store shelves today are loaded with ingredients that you may not suspect, including significant amounts of added sugar. Some beverages also contain caffeine.

Doctors have found that consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks can contribute to cavities and excess weight gain in children. Data from a study conducted in 2014 that looked at behaviors of nearly 3,000 middle and high school kids (grades 6-12) found that regular consumption of sports and energy drinks was correlated with other unhealthy lifestyle habits including higher video game use and smoking.

Kids today have a wealth of options when it comes to quenching their thirst. Here's how you can encourage them to make healthier choices when choosing a drink.

Sports Drinks

Parents may think sports drinks are healthy options because they contain many of the minerals and electrolytes that kids lose during workouts.

However, according to Kristi King, a senior dietician at Texas Children's Hospital and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, sports drinks are often high in calories and sugar—and they're not necessary for kids.

Many parents allow kids to have these drinks even when they haven't exercised vigorously. "Sports drinks were made for the endurance athlete," King says. "Most kids are not physically active enough to need sports drinks."

A better option is to give kids water and healthy snacks like string cheese, nuts, or watermelon, and/or oranges, which are both chock-full of electrolytes. Pretzels and dill pickles are also excellent choices to replace the salt kids lose when they sweat.

Energy Drinks

Energy drinks may contain some undesirable ingredients, including caffeine and large amounts of sugar. The amount of caffeine in sports and energy drinks can be as much, or more, than what is found in a cup of coffee. They also tend to be high in calories.

"These are all the things we want to avoid giving to kids," says King. "They cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, interfere with sleep, and raise the risk for diabetes and obesity. There is no reason for a child to have energy drinks."

Soft Drinks, Sweetened Juices, and Other Beverages

Parents know it's important to limit or cut out both sugar-filled and artificially-sweetened soda in their kids' diet and feel like juice may be a better option. 

However, many juices on grocery store shelves are actually juice-flavored water with (once again) lots of added sugar, empty calories, and little nutritional value.

King says that many juices are really "fake" juice that's been loaded with sugar, empty calories, and no nutritional value.

Sugary juices put kids at risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes. While drinks may state that they have "no sugar added," King points out that what they often have instead is high fructose corn syrup.

Stick to 100 percent fruit juice, which has less added sugar and may contain nutrients. Another option is to keep cold water in the fridge, then add lemons, orange, or apple slices for flavor. To replace soda, try adding a bit of 100 percent fruit juice to seltzer or club soda.

You can also try making your own juice at home. "Juice apples, carrots, bananas, and spinach," suggests King.

Sweetened Teas

Sugary "tea" drinks in a bottle are a far cry from a healthy cup of green tea. Sweet teas are often basically pure sugar, says King.

Instead of bottled sweet teas give kids herbal fruit teas with added fruit like raspberries and honey or maple syrup for a touch of sweetness.

Raw Milk

"Many people think raw milk is healthier, but it's actually illegal to purchase in a lot of states," says King.

The reason for the laws is that when milk and cheese aren't pasteurized, there is an increased risk the products will carry dangerous bacteria such as E. coli and listeria. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), children have weaker immune systems than adults, putting them at greater risk of getting sick from raw milk.

Instead, give kids low-fat pasteurized milk. "Parents should serve mostly low-fat or skim milk at meals and water in between meals to kids ages two and over unless their children have special needs," says Nicole Larson, Ph.D., lead author of a 2014 study on adolescent consumption of sports and energy drinks and their association with unhealthy behaviors.

Herbal Supplement Drinks

King notes that some kids (particularly adolescent and teenage girls) have started drinking herbal supplement beverages as a weight loss supplement—a potentially dangerous trend.

"What's on the label is not necessarily what's in the bottle," warns King. A company can make a claim like "miracle weight loss" on a tea or supplement because these products are not regulated by the FDA.

Coffee

King points out that many popular coffee drinks are high in sugar and caffeine—the latter of which is of particular concern for kids. "Children are affected differently," says King of caffeine. "They are not mini adults."

When kids consume coffee beverages meant for adults, the caffeine in these drinks can affect their sleep patterns, their ability to concentrate, and can even make them hyperactive.

A Word From Verywell

To make sure kids are drinking healthy beverages, do your best to substitute water, milk, and other no- or low-sugar drinks for less healthy options.

It's also helpful to know what your kids are drinking at school, on playdates, or when they're with another caregiver or sitter.

While you can't always be there to oversee your kid's choices, you can train your child's taste buds to prefer natural and less sugary drinks. They'll be more likely to make healthy choices, such as reaching for natural sweeteners like fruit to jazz up water instead of a can of soda.

Empowering kids to make these choices will cut down their sugar intake, help them hydrate naturally, and encourage healthy eating habits.

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Article Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Higgins JP, Tuttle TD, Higgins CL. Energy beverages: content and safety. Mayo Clin Proc. 2010;85(11):1033–1041. doi:10.4065/mcp.2010.0381

  3. Xi B, Li S, Liu Z, Tian H, Yin X, Huai P, et al. Intake of fruit juice and incidence of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysisPLoS One. 2014;9(3):e93471. Published 2014 Mar 28. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0093471

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Dangers of Raw Milk: Unpasteurized Milk Can Pose a Serious Health Risk. Updated November 2018.

  5. Larson N, Dewolfe J, Story M, Neumark-sztainer D. Adolescent consumption of sports and energy drinks: linkages to higher physical activity, unhealthy beverage patterns, cigarette smoking, and screen media use. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2014;46(3):181-7. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2014.02.008

  6. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Beware of Products Promising Miracle Weight Loss. Updated January 2015.

  7. Owens JA, Mindell J, Baylor A. Effect of energy drink and caffeinated beverage consumption on sleep, mood, and performance in children and adolescents. Nutr Rev. 2014;72 Suppl 1:65-71. doi:10.1111/nure.12150