Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe for Kids?

By Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, CDN
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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 Academy's position is that "consumers can safely enjoy a range of nutritive sweeteners and non-nutritive sweeteners when consumed within an eating plan that is guided by current federal nutrition recommendations."

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, remember that 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. "Ideally, encourage your child to enjoy a wide variety of fruits to satisfy their sweet cravings,” says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Sweeten plain yogurt with berries, or add chopped fruit to your hot or cold cereal. You can also make a homemade trail mix with a combination of dried fruit, nuts and seeds."

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