Saccharin, cyclamate, aspartame, Stevia®, and Splenda ® (sucralose) – Are these artificial sweeteners safe for children to consume? Discovered accidentally by scientists either by tasting plants or manipulating tar coal derivatives or other drugs, these “natural” or “unnatural” artificial sweeteners are many hundred-fold sweeter than sugar. The production and consumption of food and drink products containing these sweeteners has exploded since their introduction into the U.S. food industry. Although marketed as healthy, “sugar-free,” “low-calorie”, or “light,” these sweeteners, found in cookies, sodas, yogurt, breads and certain pharmaceutical products, may not be the healthiest option for children.
As pediatricians and public health advocates, we support parents as they make informed decisions about a healthy lifestyle for their children. There is mounting scientific evidence that the risks associated with consuming artificial sweeteners, may outweigh the benefits, despite the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approval for these products to be safely consumed. First, evidence shows that low-calorie artificial sweeteners do not promote weight loss and are associated with obesity and metabolic derangement in adults. For children, artificially-sweetened and sugary foods or beverages will diminishes an appetite for more wholesome meals., This can lead to suboptimal nutrition during an essential time of growth and development and put children at risk for key nutrient deficiencies and weight gain.
Secondly, artificial sweetener consumption is associated with dependence and cravings. The human brain has a strong response to sweet tastes, similar to its response to recreational drugs or sex. When a child’s palate is constantly exposed to the high-intensity sweetness, their rapidly developing brain creates and reinforces pathways that lead to sweet food preferences. Although, low in calories, the ingestion of these sweeteners has been associated with a tendency to crave and over-consume sugary and starchy food and drink products resulting in weight gain and obesity.
Finally, the consumption of artificial sweeteners can be associated with unhealthy lifestyle choices. Daily consumption of artificial sweeteners has been associated with increased TV viewing, less exercise and obesity in children. As pediatricians, we support the promotion of lifelong healthy habits for children, so the use of artificial sweeteners may be considered a red flag triggering us to ask about other unhealthy lifestyle habits that can be modified.
If we ask, “Is it safe for a child to have artificial sweeteners?” the answer is: “It depends”. Why are artificial sweeteners being consumed? How often are they being consumed? Do you know if your child is consuming them? Consumption of artificial sweeteners could result in a slippery slope for sugar dependence and cravings, poor food choices, an unhealthy lifestyle, and weight gain that may lead to diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular risk that begin in children and carry over into adult years. The better question is: “Should children have artificial sweeteners?” The evidence points towards “no”. If you are inclined to use artificial sweeteners, consider these points.
1. There is no clear role for consumption of artificial sweeteners in children.
2. There are no substitutes or alternatives to a nutrient-rich diet. Added sugars or foods with artificial sugars should not replace meals.
3. Children should have fruits and vegetables as sweet desserts which have other health benefits such as fiber, essential vitamins or minerals.
4. If your child wants to enjoy a sugary treat, limit the added sugar they consume to less than 5-10% of their caloric intake per day as recommended by the World Health Organization.
5. Make sure to read the back labels for nutrient content not just the front advertising.
6. All sweet beverages, even “light” or “sugar-free”ones, have been associated with increased body weight. Water is the best source of hydration for your child.
7. Often sweet foods and dessert present novelty. There are other ways to introduce novelty in children’s diet such as non-sweetened beverages or increasing variety of fruits and vegetables or non-processed foods available for consumption.