A new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reveals that kids today are consuming more low-calorie and artificial sweeteners than ever, with a staggering 200 percent increase from 1999 to 2012. Feeding kids fake sugars has been a controversial topic for many years, since low-calorie sweeteners have been linked with a number of possible health consequences, including the risk for diabetes.
What could have caused the jump? Registered dietitian Sally Kuzemchak thinks the reason may be that parents are heeding the message to cut back on sugar in their kids’ diets. But the sweet swap may be counter-productive.
“Artificially-sweetened foods and drinks can develop a ‘health halo’ that causes people to believe they're nutritious and good everyday choices because they don't contain sugar,” says Kuzemchak. “In reality, some of these foods also have artificial colors and flavors and other additives that kids (and grown-ups) just don't need.”
So should we toss out the artificial sweeteners altogether? Kuzemchak says it depends. “The FDA says that no-calorie sweeteners are safe, and as a dietitian, I do think they can have a place for some people in some cases (such as a person with diabetes transitioning away from regular soda). But as a mom, I'm leery of them for my own kids and don't broadly recommend them for a few reasons. I'd rather see families having cookies made with sugar and just having them occasionally than buying artificially-sweetened versions and thinking they're somehow a healthy everyday food because they're sugar-free.”
For parents who are concerned about their kids’ sugar intake, here are a few alternatives to swapping in foods with artificial sweeteners:
“When tastes adjust, those lower-sugar things will seem sweeter, and even naturally-sweet foods like fruit and some veggies will taste sweeter,” Kuzemchak says.
Shanon Maglente is Editorial Intern for Parents.