Sugar & Salt

The Lowdown on Artificial Sweeteners

Are artificial sweeteners really safe for kids?

It has been drummed into our heads that sugar is the devil, sure to mould our kids into hyper-active little monsters with weakened immune systems, rotten teeth and short attention spans. It seems only logical to avoid anything with sugar and to go for sweet tasting, ‘healthier’ substitutes instead.

What has been the cause for much debate is that when unnatural and processed sugar replacements are consumed in bulk, they may pose more of a health risk to growing little people.

According to a recent study published by the Journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, consumption of artificial sweeteners in children is up by 200%. This can largely be attributed to the increasing number of food and drink choices containing artificial sweeteners and the amount of artificially sweetened products being bought and consumed in homes.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved six artificial sweeteners for consumption. These include; aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame-k, saccharin, neotame and advantame. The FDA has also approved the consumption of the natural sweeteners in the form of stevia, xylitol and erythritol*

*Note that while these can technically be regarded as natural in source, they are generally manufactured using chemical processes or from GMO containing sources.

(For more on the differences between the approved artifical sweeteners, you can have a look here.)

Too much of a ‘good’ thing?

Beyond sugar-free fizzy drinks, artificial sweeteners can be found in most ‘diet’, ‘low calorie’ and ‘light’ products from sweets and chocolates, to yoghurts, cordials, puddings, ice-cream, spreads, cereals, protein powders, milk powders, snack bars, sauces and salad dressings (however research shows that both adults and children are more likely to consume the bulk of artificial sweeteners through fizzy drinks).

For each of the approved sweeteners, the FDA has set acceptable daily intake levels (ADI’s), where the amounts have been based on safe levels per kilogram of body weight. The good news is that the ADI’s that have been set are, in fact, 100 times lower than levels that can cause toxicity (to shed some light here, an adult would need to consume anywhere from 6-30 cans of a diet fizzy drink daily or between 9-5000 sweetener sachets daily to reach the ADI). Important to keep in mind is that children will naturally have a lower tolerance than adults based on kilogram per body weight.

For more on ADI’s and levels of toxicity for the different artificial sweeteners you can read more here. 

The American Association of Dietetics has stated that it is safe for children to consume a small amount of artificial sweeteners, as long as they stay within the ADI’s according to their weight and are eating a whole and balanced diet. 

According to the ADI’s, a 15-kilogram toddler could consume just under 4 cans of diet fizzy drinks or 21 sachets of sweetener containing aspartame, daily. This seems like a pretty high amount of aspartame for a child, which begs the question: are ADI’s enough to go by?

Even though artificial sweeteners have been approved for consumption and more recent studies have not shown any cause for concern, further studies will need to be done to determine the long-term effects on children.

Making smart & healthy choices

While artificial sweeteners have a role to play in the lives of children with diabetes, growing children require a certain number of calories daily to sustain their growing and developmental needs. By opting for zero and low-calorie food and beverage choices, you may be depriving your child of their necessary daily energy intake. Parents need to understand that artificially sweetened products are highly processed, generally contain a lot of other added nasties and fail to contain adequate nutrition for children.

Artificial sweeteners can lead to intestinal problems such as bloating or gas, especially in immature digestive systems, so best to keep an eye on how your little one reacts to food or drinks that have any added artificial sweeteners. In the case of putting your little one on a diet including restricted calorie foods, always be sure to consult with your health care provider before doing so.

Although only small amounts of artificial sweeteners are needed to create a level of sweetness that is equivalent to sugar (they can be anywhere up to 20 000 times sweeter than sugar), experts caution that artificial sweeteners can lead to children developing a taste preference for very sweet foods and drinks. If children are being given the option of drinking sweet diet fizzy drinks, they are hardly going to opt for water or milk when given the choice.

Parents need to remember that healthy eating habits start in the home. If artificially sweetened products dominate your kitchen cupboards, your child will grow up in an environment where choosing processed foods and drinks is the norm. If you want your child to opt for natural and whole choices, parents should aim to set the example with their own eating habits.

Sweet alternatives

While small amounts of artificial sweeteners may be safe, opt for natural sweetness wherever possible. Consider raw honey**, unprocessed maple syrup, unsweetened fruit purees and jams, coconut sugar, raw sugar and dates in place of refined sugar. Although natural, it is important not to overdo any of these as some easily contain the same number of calories as sugar. Keep in mind that added sugars (including natural alternatives) should be limited to six teaspoons daily for children. 

When considering natural sweeteners approved by the FDA, opt for non GMO xylitol and natural stevia (be sure to check packaging to look out for any added nasties) and use them sparingly.

 My two cents…

Everything in moderation.

Be the one to determine whether your little one needs some quality extra nutrients and whether they are consuming too many unnatural products in their diet. Strive for a diet rich in variety that is as whole and natural as possible, and you won’t need to lose sleep at night worrying about the small amount of sweetener your child may have consumed that day.

**Honey should never be given to children under the age of one due to the risk of infant botulism.

The above information should never replace the advice of your GP, Paed or Nurse.