It is estimated that at least 1 in 4 children consumes sugar alternatives and that 80 percent of them consume it daily. Sugar alternatives, also called artificial sweeteners or non-nutritive sugars, are often used in place of sugars as additives in many food products, allowing food manufacturers to label the product as ‘sugar free’.
Now nutritionists, pediatricians and other health experts are calling for more research into these alternate sugars and their effect on children, especially when it comes to the risk for type 2 diabetes.
There are eight nonnutritive sweeteners that have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the first six — Saccharin, Aspartame, Acesulfame potassium, Sucralose, Neotame, and Advantame — were approved as food additives. The other two — Stevia and Luo Han Guo/Monk Fruit — were placed under a different designation. But due to the lack of impartial research on their health safety aspects, experts suggest that it is best to avoid them whenever possible.
Saccharin is often added to yogurt and low-sugar jelly; Aspartame and Sucralose are found in many brands of diet soda; Acesulfame potassium is found in some packaged fruits that are labeled as ‘no sugar added’; Neotame is found in many brands of chewing gum and protein shakes; and Advantame, which is derived from aspartame, is often found in beverages and beverage powders as well as cooking and baking products.
Saccharin along with aspartame, acesulfame potassium, and sucralose should be avoided, as there is no credible research on their safety for use by children. In some cases, such as with aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, there have been studies linking it to cancer risk and other health problems in adults.
The jury is still out on whether consuming non-nutritive sweeteners can control weight or cause weight gain. Some research suggests the sweeteners can change appetite and taste preferences as well as the gut microbiome, and that can affect the metabolic system.
Another issue about non-nutritive sweeteners and lack of research is that children — with a smaller body weight — could exceed the acceptable daily intake established for some sweeteners. Most of the nutritional research on them is available only for adults — and kids have unique metabolic and physiologic needs.
Health experts calling for more clarity in labeling on artificial sweeteners say that consumers and parents should have the right to know what types and how much nonnutritive sweeteners are in products so that they have the ability to make informed choices.
However, considering long-term health issues it is better to train children’s palate to prefer foods that are less sweet. When children do want something sweet, try unsweetened fruit, diluted fruit juice (within the recommendations per day based on age), or fruit-infused waters. Remember that children should not have more than six teaspoons of sugar per day and no more than 250ml of a sugary beverage per week.
Nutritionists recommend buying plain yogurt and add fruit; skipping the sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages and instead making your own fruit-infused waters. You could also use applesauce and bananas to sweeten muffins and brownies; or better still, get kids used to the flavors of real, unsweetened foods, such as fruits.
Try to choose foods that are minimally processed. Look for healthful protein sources such as beans and lentils, whole grains such as oats and quinoa, as well as vegetables, fruits, and nuts.
Choose food products made from these whole foods, with as few artificially produced ingredients as possible. Let children learn to like the flavors of real foods.