Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe for Children?

By Lindsey Johnson
Sugar in a spoon with a raspberry on top

We often hear how Americans consume too much sugar, contributing to a decline in health, hyperactivity, tooth decay and problems with insulin resistance. Our diet includes more processed foods, which are sweetened to make them more palatable. There are many artificial sweeteners on the market. Are they better? Are these artificial sweeteners safe for our children?

Types of Artificial Sweeteners

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates sugar substitute products. Other countries, including those in the European Union, have additional options for artificial sweeteners that are not found here.

Artificial sweeteners (also known as “non-nutritive sweeteners”) are mostly created with chemicals in a lab and are 200-700 times sweeter than table sugar, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Despite their strong sweetness, these sweeteners don’t contain calories or sugar.

The artificial sweeteners currently on the market in the United States include:

Acesulfame potassium (Sweet One, Sunett)
Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)
Neotame (Newtame)
Saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low)
Sucralose (Splenda)

There are also sugar alcohols allowed in the U.S. market such as xylitol, erythritol, maltitol and sorbitol. These are not labeled as food additives by the FDA. These sugar alcohols are also created synthetically in a lab, but often from sugars themselves. Sugar alcohols don’t contain the same high levels of sweetness as artificial sweeteners and are used most commonly in gum and hard candies. Sugar alcohols may cause bloating, gas and diarrhea.

The third and newest group of artificial sweeteners are categorized as novel sweeteners or plant-derived noncaloric sweeteners. Some examples include monk fruit, stevia, tagatose and allulose. These sweeteners are not a significant source of calories or sugar and are primarily derived from plants. They are typically less processed than the artificial sweeteners and have a flavor closer to regular sugar.

Why Would Someone Choose Artificial Sweeteners Over Table Sugar?

Because artificial sweeteners are calorie and sugar-free, they are often consumed by those who are trying to lose or maintain weight as well as those who closely monitor their blood sugar. Artificial sweeteners do not create the spike in blood sugar that table sugar does, making it a popular choice for those with diabetes. The absence of additional calories also helps people enjoy sweetness without adding those empty calories.

How Safe are These Alternatives?

According to the Mayo Clinic, previous research dating back to the 1970’s showed a link between artificial sweeteners and bladder cancer in rats. However, more recent studies have determined that these findings do not apply to humans. Additional research on long-term daily use of artificial sweeteners suggests there may be a link to higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and overall death, but it’s possible these are caused not by the sweeteners but other lifestyle choices.

Additional studies are currently underway studying the communication between the brain and gut with long-term use of sugar substitutes. These studies are seeking to discover if these sweeteners may impact the way the body regulates blood sugar, sugar cravings and the way people experience hunger.

Nemours Kids Health warns that children under 2 years of age should not consume sugar substitutes because these substitutes contain no nutrients. Very young children need plenty of nutrients for proper brain and physical growth. Most children older than 2 years old may safely consume six to eight ounces of a food or drink daily that contains sugar substitutes, provided they are consuming enough nutrients in their daily diet. Children over the age of 2 who have diabetes may have sugar substitutes if approved by their doctor. Anyone with phenylketonuria (PKU, a metabolic disorder) should not consume sugar substitutes because their body cannot properly digest them.

How to Keep Your Child Healthy

So, are artificial sweeteners safe for our children? Ultimately, naturally occurring sugars such as those found in fruit are the best bet as a sweetener. Besides making the food or beverage have a sweeter taste, the addition of fiber and nutrients make these choices the healthiest option for growing children. However, the occasional or minimal use of sugar substitutes does not appear to have a major impact on children’s health. If your child is under two years old or has PKU, hold off on the substitutes. For other children, discuss what they recommend for your child with your doctor.

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