In our increasingly complex world of food, artificial sweeteners are everywhere. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved five artificial sweeteners for use in food and given one GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) status.
Despite the green light on the safety of artificial sweeteners from the FDA and other organizations like the National Cancer Institute, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Kids Eat Right, many parents still worry about whether their young children should be having them. The good news is that you can find artificial sweeteners on the label or ingredient lists of foods — manufacturers are required to list them.
While some research in children exists, we don’t have long-term studies of the health effects of artificial sweeteners on growing children. In other words, we don’t have studies that prove long-term use is safe for children.
We do have other studies that look at the association of weight gain and use of artificial sweeteners in children. In a 2010 review study appearing in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, researchers found that artificially sweetened soft drink consumption was present in about 4-18 percent of children in the 1990s and has been on the rise ever since. A recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found similar results: 12.5 percent of children drank artificially sweetened beverages over a 24-hour survey period, nearly twice the amount that was consumed a decade ago.
During the first six years of life, a child’s taste buds are being trained, and with an already strong drive for sweets, use of artificial sweeteners may enhance this. The taste of sweet, albeit calorie-free, may reinforce taste preferences in young children.
Others have looked at the use of artificial sweeteners in children for weight management. For children who struggle with weight gain, parents and/or professionals may encourage calorie-free foods made with artificial sweeteners. However, some studies have found that children “calorie compensate” after eating or drinking foods made with artificial sweeteners. In other words, children make up for the missing calories they didn’t consume in the no-calorie food or drink, so the overall result is not a reduced calorie intake.
In a 2012 Journal of Nutrition article on the use of low calorie sweeteners in children for weight management, authors concluded, “Overall, there are insufficient data at this time to support the use of low calorie sweeteners in infants and young children, and theoretical concerns exist about the potential of early exposure to low calorie sweeteners to affect a lifetime of eating habits.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has no official recommendations on the use of artificial sweeteners in children.
If you have a healthy, growing child with normal weight, use the real stuff (sugar) and keep it to moderate amounts. Do keep your eye on your child’s daily sugar consumption. A little bit won’t harm, but restricting sugar to a negligent amount might trigger sugar-seeking behaviors in older kids.
If you have a child under 2 years old, try to avoid sweets (real and fake) entirely. With tiny tummies, babies and toddlers need the most nutritious foods parents can feed them.
If you have a child who is overweight, discuss the use of artificial sweeteners with your healthcare team. Again, all children, regardless of weight, require nutrient-dense foods (foods with high amounts of nutrients per calorie) for optimal growth, nutrition, and function.
- Artificial sweeteners may be used for children who have trouble gaining weight.
- Regularly growing children can consume regular sugar in moderate amounts.
- Avoid sweets, real and fake, entirely for children 2 years old and younger.