Do you buy foods that say they have reduced sugar or no-added-sugar in an attempt to decrease the sugar in your child’s diet? If so, you are likely buying foods with artificial sweeteners.
Do you buy foods that say they have reduced sugar or no-added-sugar in an attempt to decrease the sugar in your child’s diet? If so, you are likely buying foods with artificial sweeteners. The number of foods made with nonnutritive (artificial) sweeteners has quadrupled in recent years, so it isn’t surprising to learn that the intake of artificial sweeteners has risen by 200 percent among children between 1999 and 2012. According to a 2017 study, more than 25 percent of children ages 2 and older regularly consume artificial sweeteners.
Should you be giving your children artificial sweeteners? Although the Food and Drug Administration has determined that artificial sweeteners are safe, scientific research is mixed as to whether they are helpful or harmful to our health. There are six artificial sweeteners currently approved for use by the FDA. They include: acesulfame potassium, aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, neotame and advantame. Stevia and monk fruit extract have been given GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status.
Each artificial sweetener has been given a maximum safe allowance for use, generally based on an adult’s weight. Kids, with their smaller bodies, should consume less. The acceptable daily limit for a 40 pound child is something close to 4 cans of diet soda a day. You may think there is no way you’d allow your child to have that much, but think about all the different products he or she might eat or drink throughout the day with added artificial sweeteners. Some of these include common, kid friendly foods like jelly, yogurt, pudding, fruit cups, juice drinks, hot cocoa mixes, ketchup, cereals and even flavored waters.
Following are the problems I see with giving kids artificial sweeteners.
1. When kids are used to everything tasting sweet (even water), those less sweet nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, milk or plain water become less appealing. This can result in appetite changes, including cravings for more sweets, as well as taste preference changes that can last a lifetime.
2. The long-term health effect of artificial sweeteners is unknown. Artificial sweeteners have only become popular since the mid-1980s. We don’t know what the long-term effects of daily use might be. This is doubly true for children who may face a lifetime of use. Some studies have found that use of artificial sweeteners may increase the risk of glucose intolerance which can lead to diabetes, increased body mass index, higher risk of metabolic syndrome and change our gut bacteria in ways that may lead to other health concerns.
3. Artificial sweeteners should not be used as an excuse to include more treats or sugary foods in your child’s diet. Foods where artificial sweeteners are commonly found, such as sweetened beverages or junk foods, should not be a major part of your child’s diet. Therefore, eating a little less of the real thing is probably better.
4. If you are using artificial sweeteners in an attempt to help your child with weight loss, it probably won’t work. Kids who eat a lot of sugar often consume it as part of a pattern of over eating in general. Switching to sugar-free products just cuts down on one small source of calories and may not be enough to affect their weight in a significant way.
5. Artificial sweeteners are found in many foods and often more than one will be in a food, sometimes combined with sugar. The amount of artificial sweetener in the food does not have to be displayed, so you really have no idea how much is in each serving. Plus, they are hard to identify unless you know all the names used for artificial sweeteners. This makes me think that the public in general (and kids specifically) are getting way more artificial sweeteners in their daily diet than they realize.
So, what can you do? Continue to make efforts to reduce the sugar in your child’s diet but don’t replace those sugars with artificial sweeteners. This means treats and sugary foods or beverages should be just occasional foods and not part of your child’s everyday diet.
How can you find out which foods have artificial sweeteners? Be aware of labels that advertise “no sugar added,” “reduced sugar,” “reduced calorie,” “sugar free” or “diet,” or are labeled “light” as they probably have artificial sweeteners. Read the label and become familiar with all the various forms of artificial sweeteners. The following are all artificial sweeteners: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, stevia, monk fruit, xylitol, sorbitol, polydextrose, mannitol, malititol, erythritol, neotame, advantame. Brand names include: Truvia, Sweetleaf, Sweet One, Sunett, Ace K, Nutrasweet, Equal, Sweet N Low, Splenda and Sugar Twin.
Artificial sweeteners have their place. They can be a tool for kids and adults with diabetes to use to enjoy sweet tasting foods without affecting blood sugar. They can be used as a way to kick a heavy sugar habit. But for the general public and especially kids, there isn’t a lot of good evidence that they need to be included in our diet at all.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.