Artificial sweeteners are a tricky topic. As a dietitian, I'm taught to weigh the evidence: The FDA says they're safe, and scientific research is mixed on whether they help or hurt (and the internet is rife with rumors that they cause everything from migraines to cancer). As a mom, sometimes I also have to go with my gut—and my gut tells me that artificial sweeteners just aren't good for kids.
Here are four reasons I'm wary of them:
They're often found in "treat" foods and drinks, like candy, soda, ice cream, and fruit drinks that shouldn't have a major place in the diet anyway. Instead of seeking out faux-sweetened versions of these products and serving them regularly, I'd rather give my kids the real deal—but less frequently.
They may stoke the appetite for a more sweetness. Artificially sweetened foods and drinks usually have fewer calories and sugar, but they may also trigger more cravings for sweets. Even worse, when kids are used to everything being sweet, less sweet foods like fresh vegetables and fruit—and beverages like plain water and plain milk—just might lose their appeal.
They may mess with health. Some past studies have found a higher risk of metabolic syndrome and a higher BMI in diet soda drinkers. In a recent study, mice fed artificial sweeteners developed glucose intolerance, which can increase the risk for diabetes. The researchers say that's because the sweeteners actually changed the kind of bacteria in the gut. Though the research isn't definitive, it's enough to make me extra cautious.
They're fake. Kids are already overloaded with fake additives, including the artificial food dyes, flavors, and chemical preservatives so often found in foods and drinks marketed to children. Kids should be eating fewer fake ingredients, not more of them.
If you want to avoid artificial sweeteners, be sure to carefully read ingredient lists. Products that claim "Low in Sugar" or "Reduced Sugar" on their packages may actually contain one or more faux sweeteners. Watch out for the ingredients "sucralose", "aspartame", "acesulfame potassium", and "saccharin".
So should these sweeteners ever have a place in a child's diet? Maybe, especially as a short-term tool for children (and adults) with diabetes who need help lowering their blood sugar. But ultimately, I think the smartest approach for everyone is to reduce the amount of all sweetened foods and drinks in the diet, whether they're made with sugar or saccharin.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.
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Image: Artificial sweetener via Shutterstock