March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
If you're concerned about the amount of sugar in your child's diet you might be wondering if artificial sweeteners are a smart alternative. "The safety of artificial sweeteners has been studied for years and, used in moderation, they are perfectly safe for kids," says Sarah Krieger, MPH, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Unlike sugar, they don’t cause cavities or add calories to food and they can be a helpful alternative for children with diabetes."
Despite what you may have heard, artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharine, neotame, acesulfame-K and sucralose don’t cause birth defects or cancer and they aren’t linked to behavior problems. Because they are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, only tiny amounts are needed to equal the sweetening power of sugar. Before the government approves the use of any sweetener it carefully scrutinizes:
- How it is made
- Which foods it will be used in
- How much the average person will eat each day
- If it is potentially harmful to a person's health
It then sets a limit for the amount that a person can safely consume based on their body weight. That limit is usually many times more than the average child will ever eat. For example, a 40-pound child would need to eat 24 packets of aspartame or drink four 12-ounce cans of diet soda every day to reach this level.
That said, there is one group of kids who can’t eat all artificial sweeteners: those with phenylketonuria (or PKU). People with PKU aren't able to metabolize phenylalanine, an amino acid in aspartame, so they're advised to steer clear of aspartame.
If your child is eating the occasional artificially sweetened food you have nothing to worry about. But, before you stock your fridge with artificially sweetened foods and drinks, rememberthat many of these — such as sugar free ice cream and fruit flavored drinks — aren't always the most nutritious choices and can still fill kids up with empty calories. "Instead satisfy your child's sweet tooth naturally by mixing fresh berries into creamy low-fat yogurt, slicing bananas on a whole grain waffle, or stirring chopped pears into a steaming bowl of oatmeal," says Krieger.