The Skinny on Artificial Sweeteners & Kids

The Skinny on Artificial Sweeteners & Kids

We’re all concerned about our kids’ nutrition, right? But, there’s so much information out there, much of which seems to contradict itself. On the subject of sugar, however, everyone agrees — it’s important to limit it. In addition to dental health and weight concerns, countless studies have shown it can increase your chances of developing diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, among other maladies.

We know all this, and yet, as loving parents, we also want our kids to at least occasionally enjoy sweet treats. So, are artificial sweeteners the answer? Most experts say, no.

While many studies, whose conclusions are still being hotly debated, have linked artificial sweeteners — such as aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), sucralose (Splenda), and saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low) — to some truly scary health problems, few seem quite as conclusive as recent ones that have associated fake sugar with weight gain in children. Sounds counterintuitive, right? Time to do some digging.

Childhood obesity is a huge problem in our country, with a rate of 18.5% nationwide — but, even worse, Louisiana ranks number four in the U.S., with a whopping 19.1% of our 10-17-year-olds considered obese. Many parents think they’re doing the right thing by introducing sugar alternatives to combat weight problems and the alarming array of health risks it presents, but they may be making it worse.

According to Contemporary Pediatrics, a clinical resource for pediatricians, a new report has found that artificial sweeteners may, in fact, stimulate consumer’s appetites, and lead to overeating.

“Obesity rates have tripled in some pediatric age groups. As providers and parents search for alternatives that will allow children to consume healthier choices, the use of artificial sweeteners is not a ‘healthy’ alternative to sugar-dense beverages,” says Susan Eley, PhD, MS, RN, FNP-BC, one of the study authors and professor, College of Health and Human Services, School of Nursing, Indiana State University, Terre Haute.

Sally Kuzemchak a registered dietitian, educator, mom, and contributor to, also raises some good points on the subject. In her post, she says artificial sweeteners…

…are 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.

…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.

…are 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.

She also warns that “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.”

Bottom line: We all have to make our own choices regarding our children’s health and diets. Very few of us are willing to completely deprive our children of sweet treats, at least on occasion, so it’s best to find some sort of balance we can live with, and to stay well-informed in order to make the very best decisions.