Are artificial sweeteners safe for kids?

Although five artificial sweeteners (acesulfame potassium, aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, and neotame) have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are no studies of their short- and long-term effects in children. As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), citing “limited studies,” has refrained from issuing any recommendations regarding their use in kids. 

Artificial sweeteners have long been touted as a safe alternative to sugar since they don’t contribute to tooth decay, obesity, or high blood sugar. However, a recent study in mice and adult humans found that artificial sweeteners altered the bacteria in the intestines, which in turn caused an increase in blood sugar. While these results are preliminary, they are prompting researchers to reexamine the role artificial sweeteners play in blood sugar. 

A scarcity of data, however, hasn’t kept manufacturers from adding artificial sweeteners to a growing number of kid-friendly foods such as cereal, popcorn, and more. While skeptics worry about the lack of safety data, proponents claim that the small amount of artificial sweetener in most foods is unlikely to cause harm. 

Safety concerns aside, artificial sweeteners are hundreds or even thousands of times sweeter than sugar. Knowing that taste preferences develop in childhood, commonsense suggests that children who eat a variety of artificially sweetened foods are more likely to develop a preference for foods that are artificially sweetened rather than naturally sweet. 

Until more data are available, parents are advised to avoid giving their children artificially sweetened foods. They are also urged to read food labels: Some foods advertised as “reduced sugar” or “no sugar added” actually contain one or more artificial sweeteners. And be wary of “fat free” and “reduced fat” foods, such as peanut butter and salad dressings, which often contain up to three times the amount of sugar found in full fat versions. 

For more on the best and worst sugar substitutes see “Sweet Nothings” by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a watchdog organization, and Environmental Nutrition, an independent nutrition newsletter.

Last updated June 17, 2017

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