Artificial sweeteners have caused a lot of debate. People use them to replace sugar, an ingredient with a poor reputation. But are they safe for kids? This is a common question parents who want their children to eat well ask.
At first, anything seems better than sugar, even though it’s naturally found in some food. The real problem is added sugar. It’s full of calories and has no nutrients, making it a valid cause for weight gain. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease are also linked to added sugar.
Unfortunately, the average American eats 22 tsp of added sugar every day. That’s an extra 350 calories. Over time, it will pack on the pounds.1
No wonder artificial sweeteners are so popular. These sugar substitutes are much sweeter than normal sugar, so very little is needed. In comparison, the sweetness can range from 180 times (like aspartame) to 20,000 times (like advantame) more. Stevia, a sweetener made from leaves, is 30 times sweeter.
The effects on children have yet to be studied. Adults may use them to wean themselves off sugar, but long-term use isn’t recommended. If that’s the case for adults, what’s more for children?2 Here are 3 ways eating a lot of artificial sweeteners may be harmful.
3 Reasons Artificial Sweeteners Are Harmful
1. Increased Sugar Craving
Ironically, sugar substitutes will make you want sugar. Your taste buds just sense that both are sweet, but the brain can tell a difference.
Real sugar activates specific taste pathways in the human brain. It promotes a stronger response, which satisfies the craving. Artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, have a weaker effect. In turn, the pathway isn’t satisfied and you’re left wanting more.3
This is bad news for both kids and adults. Children already have a sweet tooth! With artificial sweeteners, their hankering for sugary foods might worsen.
2. Higher Type 2 Diabetes Risk
In a 2013 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers observed how sugar and artificial sweeteners are linked to diabetes. The experiment lasted 14 years. Surprisingly, both ingredients increased type 2 diabetes risk.
From insulin resistance to weight gain, the effect of sugar is obvious. However, the impact of artificial sweeteners is less clear. Researchers think it has to do with the concept of increased sugar cravings.4
3. Phenylalanine Buildup
Aspartame isn’t safe for children with phenylketonuria. This is a condition in which children’s bodies are missing phenylalanine hydroxylase – an enzyme needed to break down phenylalanine, which is the amino acid in aspartame. If children eat aspartame, phenylalanine substances will build up. The biggest symptom is a musty smell in breath, skin, ear wax, and urine.
All foods with phenylalanine should be avoided. To be safe, always check food labels. Your child should not eat anything with aspartame.5
In small doses, artificial sweeteners are considered safe for both kids and adults.
Does this mean you should stock up on artificially sweetened foods? Not necessarily. “Sugar-free” products often have added fat for flavor. Meanwhile, fruit-flavored snacks and drinks are full of empty calories. Just because something has an artificial sweetener doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
Instead, use fruits to satisfy your kid’s sweet tooth. Make smoothie ice pops or frozen banana ice cream. Berries can be used to sweeten cereal, plain yogurt, or ice cream. Eventually, your child will take these healthy habits forward into adulthood.
|↑1||Added Sugar in the Diet. Harvard T.H. Chan, School of Public Health.|
|↑2||Artificial Sweeteners. Harvard T.H. Chan, School of Public Health.|
|↑3||Frank, Guido KW, Tyson A. Oberndorfer, Alan N. Simmons, Martin P. Paulus, Julie L. Fudge, Tony T. Yang, and Walter H. Kaye. “Sucrose activates human taste pathways differently from artificial sweetener.” Neuroimage 39, no. 4 (2008): 1559-1569.|
|↑4||Fagherazzi, Guy, Alice Vilier, Daniela Saes Sartorelli, Martin Lajous, Beverley Balkau, and Françoise Clavel-Chapelon. “Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidémiologique auprès des femmes de la Mutuelle Générale de l’Education Nationale–European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 97, no. 3 (2013): 517-523.|
|↑5||Phenylketonuria. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine.|