You're mindful of what your child eats or drinks, but do you really know what they're putting in their bodies? Studies by NHANES over the last 40 years tracked childhood obesity as it steadily increased before plateauing at 20% in 2008. Many attribute the changes to a national focus on the importance of low-calorie, low-sugar foods. You grew up on foods that contained sucrose, the gold standard of sugar derived from cane or beets, but nowadays children are consuming foods with sugar substitutes such as aspartame and sucralose. As with any new product, there is little in the way of research on associated long-term health effects. How sure are you that these foods are safe for your developing children?
Not all sugar is created equal. Low calorie sweeteners (LCS) are not a novel concept: sugar of lead was first used by the ancient Romans, often causing lead poisoning in chronic users. The sugar substitute cyclamate, banned by FDA for it's association with bladder cancer in rats, is still used today in countries such as the UK and Russia. Today, the most commonly used sugar substitutes include the expensive natural sugar substitute Stevia (Truvia®) and those colorful packets of sugar substitutes-aspartame (Equal®), saccharin (Sweet'N Low®) and sucralose (Splenda®).
Sucralose (Splenda®), the top-selling sugar substitute found in many sodas and foods, has been deemed safe for human consumption, from conception to old age. Since the majority of the molecule is not broken down or absorbed by the body, it is considered calorie-free. In the laboratory, studies on toxicity in rats failed to show any increased cancer risk even at the equivalent of 100 pounds of sucralose consumed daily throughout a lifetime. Long-term clinical studies have shown that human adult consumption of up to 1000 mg (~25 diet sodas) per day for up to 6 months did not lead to abnormal blood work or adverse clinical effects. Similar findings exist for the other sweeteners.
As adults consume more of these sugar substitutes, they are making their way into the lives of children and adolescents. What research has been conducted on their behalf?
Several studies have explored the relationship between consumption of artificial sweeteners and weight changes in children, but results are conflicting. A major obstacle in these investigations involves controlling for genetic, cultural and environmental parameters. In all, they seem to suggest that when children consume sugar-free foods, many will actually GAIN weight. How could this be? Other studies explore this question, and investigators believe that children compensate for the low-calorie meals and beverages by eating more to make up for the "missing calories." This is not unreasonable, since the same phenomenon has been observed with fat-free diets in adults.
Due to all this speculation and lack of conclusive research, and partly because artificial sweeteners tend to displace milk and 100% juice at mealtimes, the official position of the American Academy of Pediatrics is that foods and beverages containing LCS should not make up a significant part of a child's diet.
The medical community clearly needs to perform more studies on LCS consumption in children, including long-term health consequences and weight management effectiveness, as more of these mystery products find their way into your home.
- Foods and beverages containing artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, saccharin and stevia should only be a small part of your child's diet. Substitute high-sugar drinks such as cola, chocolate milk and some fruit juices for healthier options such as milk and water whenever possible. Studies attempting to link fruit juices to obesity have been conflicting.
- Always use food labels to select lower-sugar foods and beverages, and encourage your children to do the same. Use of food labels has been associated with consuming a higher-quality diet. Consult your pediatrician, family physician or dietician with any questions.
- Communicate with your child and know what he or she is eating at school when you aren't present. Additionally, studies have shown that eating dinner as a family leads to more responsible food choices and healthier eating throughout life.
- Avoid using sugary foods and beverages as rewards, which increases a child’s preference for that food. For more information, view our list of resources.
Artificial Sweetener Use Among Children: Epidemiology, Recommendations, Metabolic Outcomes, and Future Directions. Pediatrics Clinics of North America, Volume 58, Issue 6 (December 2011). W. B. Saunders Company.
Foreyt J. The use of low-calorie sweeteners by children: implications for weight management. J Nutr. 2012; 142(6): 1155S-62S.
Grotza VL, Munrob IC. An overview of the safety of sucralose. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, Volume 55, Issue 1 (October 2009). Pages 1–5.
Update in Childhood and Adolescent Obesity. Pediatrics Clinics of North America, Volume 58, Issue 6 (December 2011). W. B. Saunders Company.