Artificial Sweeteners – Are they safe for kids?

From drinks, candies and desserts to canned foods, dairy products and even baked goods, you can find sugar substitutes on nearly every aisle of your local grocery store. Even products that advertise “no aspartame” or “no [other sugar substitute]” may have just substituted one artificial sweetener for another.

So exactly what are these sugar substitutes that you see everywhere? Are artificial sweeteners something you should worry about having in your kid’s diet?  See FEED Founder, Lara Field’s take on this sticky subject as featured on Nurture Life. In this brief FAQ, registered dietitian, Lara Field clears the air on natural vs. artificial sweeteners. Let’s take a look at what the latest research says about sugar substitutes and kids.

What Are Sugar Substitutes?

Simply put, sugar substitutes are any ingredients that can replace sugar to add sweetness. But just knowing an ingredient is sweet doesn’t necessarily help you determine its nutritional value! “Sugar substitutes” can be further broken down into three primary categories that help you determine caloric content and where they come from:

1. Artificial Sweeteners (Low-Calorie or Non-Nutritive)

As you might imagine from their name, artificial sweeteners are additives that make food taste sweet but are not natural sources of sugar—in other words, they’re made in a lab. Some artificial sweeteners are what scientists call “non-nutritive” (meaning they have zero calories), while others do have a caloric value that’s much lower than real sugar.

In the United States, six of these artificial sweeteners have been approved by the FDA:

  • Acesulfame K, or Ace K (brand names: Sunett and Sweet One)
  • Advantame
  • Aspartame (brand names: Equal and Nutrasweet)
  • Neotame (brand name: Newtame)
  • Saccharin (brand names: Sweet ‘N Low and Sweet Twin)
  • Sucralose (brand name: Splenda)

2. Natural Sweeteners (Low-Calorie or Non-Nutritive)

Not all low-calorie or non-nutritive sweeteners are artificial! There are also natural options derived from plant-based compounds. Examples of these include stevia (brand names: Truvia, PureVia) and monk fruit (also known as lo han guo). While these natural sweeteners are not officially FDA-approved, they are considered GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe.”

3. Natural Sweeteners (Not Low-Calorie)

Just as not all low-calorie sweeteners are artificial, not all natural sweeteners are low-calorie! Many sugar substitutes are naturally derived but contain as many or more calories than sugar. While they may have similar calories to sugar, natural sweeteners are often regarded as healthier because they are less processed and have a lower glycemic index, meaning they raise blood sugar levels at a slower rate than refined sugars.

Examples of natural sweeteners include:

  • Honey
  • Molasses
  • Maple Syrup
  • Agave Nectar
  • Coconut Sugar
  • Fruit juice concentrate

How Sweet are Low-Calorie Sweeteners?

Although they’re often called “sugar substitutes,” low-calorie sweeteners are actually not a one-to-one substitute for sugar. Instead, they’re much sweeter (so much so that they’re often called “high-intensity sweeteners”).

Just look at the sweetness levels of common natural and artificial sweeteners:

  • Acesulfame K – 200 times sweeter than table sugar
  • Advantame – 20,000 times sweeter than table sugar
  • Aspartame – 200 times sweeter than table sugar
  • Neotame – 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar
  • Saccharin – 700 times sweeter than table sugar
  • Sucralose – 600 times sweeter than table sugar
  • Stevia –  200 to 400 times sweeter than table sugar
  • Monk fruit – 100 to 150 times sweeter than table sugar

Which Foods Use Low-Calorie Sweeteners for Sugar Replacement?

Look at the labels on processed foods, and you’ll often find one or more of the low-calorie sweeteners listed above. Even without turning the package over, you can be clued into products that likely contain sugar substitutes by looking out for terms like “diet,” “light,” “lower-sugar,” “low-calorie” or “sugar-free.”

The number of consumer goods with artificial sweeteners has quadrupled in the past few years, including:

  • Soft drinks (zero-calorie and regular)
  • Sports drinks
  • Light fruit juices
  • Meal replacement bars
  • Snack bars
  • Diet desserts, like ice cream or candy
  • Dairy products, like sugar-free yogurt
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Gelatins and puddings
  • Chewing gum
  • Canned fruit
  • Baked goods
  • Dry baking or dessert mixes
  • Electrolyte replacement drinks

Of course, many generic and brand-name sugar substitutes are also used as tabletop sweeteners in restaurants and cafes.

Are Low-Calorie Sweeteners Safe?

Since low-calorie sweeteners are so common in the foods around us, the biggest question for many parents is, “Are they safe?” The short answer is yes, according to our current body of scientific research.

The long answer, though, is a little more nuanced. Harvard health researchers say it best: “Whether non-nutritive sweeteners are safe depends on your definition of safe.”

Basically, the research thus far has been inconclusive. There is no evidence to suggest that aspartame or other low-calorie sweeteners cause cancer (an ongoing health scare), but there are preliminary hypotheses linking these products to other real concerns:

  • Insulin resistance: Animal studies have hinted that low-calorie sweeteners may cause a similar insulin response as real sugar. More studies are needed, but this hypothesis would potentially connect artificial sugar with Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other serious health conditions.
  • Brain-gut connectionA recent study in Molecules has found that one artificial sweetener, neotame, reduces the diversity of gut microbiota responsible for healthy metabolism. As more studies connect gut health with a range of physical and mental health outcomes, the effect of artificial sweeteners on the gut needs more investigation.
  • Sweet “addiction”A famous study in rats found that 94% of rats chose saccharin over cocaine. While there’s no evidence of literal addiction to artificial sugar, this study is an early indicator of just how powerful extreme sweetness can be.

So even though the FDA generally recognizes these sugar substitutes as safe, more research is required to really know for sure—especially for kids. Harvard researchers recommend limiting low-calorie sweeteners for children since there’s just not enough research about early exposure.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) takes a similar stand, recently pushing for food manufacturers to be required to clearly list the amount of low-calorie sweeteners in their products. The AAP notes that we have not yet established whether it’s safe for kids to consume these products over the long term.

So…Are Low-Calorie Sweeteners Bad for You and Your Kids?

Again, there’s no clear yes-or-no answer.

In moderation and over the short term, low-calorie sweeteners may help adults lose weight. However, multiple studies have associated these sugar substitutes with the opposite effect, too: weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. (Note that correlation isn’t causation, so researchers can’t say yet that the sweeteners caused these results.)

When considering their impact on kids, it’s important to note two critical areas: taste preference and diet quality.

Impact on Kids’ Taste Preferences

Remember just how sweet these chemicals are compared to regular table sugar? By eating and drinking so many super-sweet things, kids may get accustomed to extreme sweetness—pushing them to want more and more sweets, both natural and artificial.

Since taste preferences are developed early, young kids who get used to extreme sweetness may be more likely to prefer sweet foods into their teenage and even adult years. In the short term, they may also develop picky eating habits that are hard to overcome.

Impact on Kids’ Diets

Another concern is that these artificially sweetened foods may simply replace more nutritious foods in a child’s diet. For example, instead of consuming sugar in the form of fruit (which also has fiber, vitamins, and minerals), kids may snack on sugar-free candies that offer no nutritional value, skipping the fruit altogether. Artificial sweeteners are called “nonnutritive” for a reason!

Lara Field MS, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian and Specialist in Pediatrics with over a decade of clinical and client experience. When she’s not actively working to keep her clients healthy, she’s a busy mother of two active boys and loves testing new recipes in her kitchen. Follow her on Instagram to see her recipe ideas, product suggestions, and see how she manages a healthy lifestyle @larafield.