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Artificial Sweeteners and Kids - What Parents Need to Know

Author: Elizabeth Simpson Earley
Published Date: Monday, November 25, 2019

Around the holidays, it’s easy for children to get lured into eating too many sweets.

All those chocolate kisses. And peppermint candy canes. And holiday pies with meringue and dollops of whipped cream.

Although it is fine to have the occasional holiday treat, Kerri Somers, exercise physiologist with CHKD's  Healthy You for Life program, wants to remind everyone to keep moving during the season as well. It takes 42 minutes of running up the stairs to burn off just one chocolate bar!

Sometimes, parents think they’re doing their children a favor by finding foods with artificial sweeteners to lessen the sugar load. It’s estimated one in four children consume artificial sweeteners as part of their diet, with 80 percent of those using them daily. Elizabeth Kerr, nurse practitioner with Healthy You for Life, cautions parents to only use artificial sweeteners one to two times a week.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of sweeteners, and one underlying complication is this:

There’s still a lot we don’t know. Especially with children.

A new American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement, published in the November 2019 journal Pediatrics, strives to get to the bottom of what we know, what we don’t know, and what parents should consider.

The Use of Nonnutritive Sweeteners in Children” policy statement points out that there was an initial worry that these additives were linked to a risk of cancer, but subsequent study did not bear that out.

Concern has shifted in another direction: Do sweeteners increase the risk for obesity and Type 2 diabetes? The studies are divided on this issue, and the academy is calling for more research on the topic.

Some short-term studies suggest substituting sweeteners for sugar can help reduce weight gain and promote small weight losses, according to the AAP. But there’s also research linking sweetener use to weight gain. The studies suggest sweeteners can lead to changes in appetite and taste preferences. There’s also concern it could impact the gut microbiome, in a way that could lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, and diabetes.

More attention is being paid to “metabolic syndrome,” a condition that includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels. The syndrome increases a person's risk for heart attack and stroke.

Given the limited and contrasting studies, the AAP is recommending that food and beverage manufacturers report artificial sweetener content on food and beverage labels, rather than just listing them among ingredients, so families know how much their children are consuming. Developing a taste for nutritious food instead of sweet items takes time and should start early.

Here are some tips from the AAP and our Healthy You for Life team to help:

Read the Nutrition Facts labels.

Aim for less than 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for children 2 years of age and older.

Serve water and white milk.

Avoid soda, sports drinks, sweet tea, sweetened coffee, and fruit drinks. Milk contains natural sugar (lactose) and provides calcium, protein, vitamin D, and other nutrients children need. Limit fruit juice, which has more sugar per serving than whole fruit. Dr. Michelle Henning, the medical director of Healthy You for Life, says it is better to eat whole fruit than to drink fruit juice. Fruits have natural sugar with the additional benefit of fiber, which fruit juice lacks.

Limit processed, pre-packaged foods and drinks.

Sugar is often added to them while they are being made. For example, there are hidden sources of added sugar in processed foods like ketchup, dried cranberries, salad dressing, and baked beans.

Avoid buying high-calorie foods such as chips, cookies, and candy bars.

Your child may not ask for these treats if they are not in sight.

Stock up on fruits and vegetables.

Prepare them in ways your children like. Add garlic or your child’s favorite herbs, such as basil, oregano, or lemon pepper to make vegetables tasty, recommends Lynn Kistler, registered dietitian for Healthy You for Life.

Eat together as a family when possible.

Research shows that kids eat more vegetables and fruits and less fried foods and sugary drinks when they eat with the entire family.

Focus on progress, not perfection.

Carrie Barnish, a licensed clinical social worker for Healthy You for Life, says even small changes make a difference, especially family-centered ones, such as eating meals together, and doing physical activities as a family. So turn off those electronic screens and enjoy each other and your food.

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About Elizabeth Simpson Earley

About Elizabeth  Simpson Earley Elizabeth Simpson Earley works in the marketing and public relations department at CHKD. She handles calls from the media, and helps to promote CHKD and children’s health. A former health reporter at The Virginian-Pilot, Elizabeth has two grown daughters who were treated at CHKD on a regular basis.