Many parents wonder what risks there are when offering a child, a food or beverage containing an artificial sweetener like aspartame or saccharin. These sugar substitutes aren’t just in carbonated diet sodas anymore; they can be found in powdered drink mixes, yogurt, puddings, candy, baked goods, frozen desserts, and many other commercially available products. So, which is better for your child: real sugar, or a low or no-calorie substitute?
Saccharin, once the market leader, was infamously linked to bladder cancer in rats back in the 1970s. Similarly, a recent Italian study linked aspartame with Lymphoma and Leukaemia in rats. But, the generalizability of these animal studies is often questioned and there is no conclusive evidence that these sweeteners cause similar or other serious health problems in humans. At the same time, these sweeteners have no nutritional beneﬁts, although all mainstream health organizations view them as safe, even for children. For parents of youngsters struggling with obesity, a low – calorie drink favored with artiﬁcial sweetener is often a much better choice than sugar -laden cola, which packs about 150 calories per 12 ounces can, or a favored “sports drink” or “energy drink.” (Aimed at athletes but often consumed by young children who aren’t engaging in calorie – burning games, these drinks have fewer calories than regular soda, but they are not calorie – free.)
This doesn’t mean that your child should have unlimited access to artificially sweetened beverages (or foods) just because they are low in calories, as it may lead to over-indulging and poor snacking habits. Like some weight watching adults, children may develop an attitude of “It’s low – calorie, so I can drink/eat twice, three times, four times as much!” (There are a few recent studies that suggest appetite may even be increased when artiﬁcial sweeteners are substituted for sugar!) It might be hard to stop a teenager from drinking multiple cans of diet soda per day (or eating half a box of reduced – calorie cookies); you’ll have better odds with a young child.
As a parent, you can exert some control over how much and what kind of artificially sweetened beverages and foods your child consumes. You can also make sure your child is offered a variety of healthy drinks, such as water and raw milk.
If a child is at risk for obesity, most pediatricians would agree that artiﬁcial sweeteners can be useful and practical. (“But it’s a chemical,” a parent of an overweight child objected when a pediatrician colleague suggested offering diet soda to replace the full – calorie version the child loved. “So is sugar,” the pediatrician reminded her.)
Finally, consider that a glass of iced, homemade lemonade, favored with a bit of real sugar and fresh lemon, can be a more satisfying treat than several glasses of the powdered, artificially sweetened version. Sometimes this lesson is lost on the very young, who may be more about quantity than quality. But it’s worth trying — those budding taste buds just may prevail.