Diet soda. Low-sugar ketchup. Light yogurt.
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What do these foods all have in common? They’re all common items on grocery shelves, and they all probably contain some form of artificial sweeteners.
These are substances that give foods and beverages a sweet taste with minimal calories and no sugar. And in one recent study, more than one in four children reported eating or drinking something that contained an artificial sweetener on a given day.
While some people think that swapping sugar for artificial sweeteners is an easy way to reduce their kids’ sugar consumption, a lot of questions about them still remain. Are artificial sweeteners safe for kids to consume? And do they actually help with weight loss? Unfortunately, the answers aren’t exactly straightforward.
The sticky situation with sugar
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 17% of calories in kids’ diets comes from sugar — and half of that comes from drinks with added sugar. (For reference, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10% of anyone’s daily calories come from added sugar.)
“Excessive sugar consumption, especially from sugar-sweetened beverages, contributes to childhood obesity,” says pediatric dietitian Hanna Freeman, MS, RD, CSP, LD. Sugar is digested quickly in the body, which can cause rapid blood sugar spikes that can leave a child feeling hungry after eating — or make them crave even more sugar, she says.
For a child who needs between 1,300 to 1,500 calories a day, just one 12 oz. can of soda alone can push them past the recommended 10% added sugar limit.
“I have found that many children with obesity may drink up to three to four sugar-sweetened beverages per day, which far exceeds the daily allowance for added sugar,” Freeman adds.
Sugar also lacks nutrition from fiber, vitamins or minerals, Freeman explains. So if children consume a large percentage of their calories from sugar, they’re likely missing out on other foods that provide essential nutrients needed for growth and development.
The scoop on sweeteners
Because artificial sweeteners contain minimal calories and no sugar, they don’t cause those troublesome blood sugar spikes, and some people assume they are healthier than sugar.
Some of the most recognizable ones are:
- Sucralose (Splenda®).
- Saccharin (Sweet’N Low®).
- Stevia (Truvia®).
- Acesulfame potassium, or Ace-K (Sweet One®).
- Monk fruit extract.
- Aspartame (Equal®).
But whether artificially sweetened foods and beverages are healthier options than sugary foods and beverages isn’t exactly clear. When it comes to weight, Freeman notes that some studies have shown an association between artificial sweeteners and short-term weight loss or weight stability, but studies on their long-term effects are lacking.
There’s also still a lot to learn about other ways that artificial sweeteners may affect people’s health. Some studies have shown that certain ones may alter the makeup of important bacteria in the gut. Early animal studies also linked certain sweeteners to increased risk for cancer, but newer studies have not found this association.
The Food and Drug Administration has established acceptable daily intake levels for sweeteners, which is the amount thought to be safe to consume based on someone’s body weight. But because manufacturers aren’t required to disclose exactly how much sweetener they put in products, it’s not easy for parents to know how much their child is consuming.
Freeman offers this general guidance: “A child with obesity who is drinking multiple sugar-sweetened beverages per day may benefit from replacing these drinks with sugar-free alternatives to reduce sugar and calorie intake. But I generally recommend no more than one or two 8 oz. cups of beverages that contain non-nutritive sweeteners per day.”
Strategies for less sugar
It’s important to remember that “sugar-free” is not the same thing as healthy. The best option overall is to set kids up for long-term success by helping them establish healthy eating habits centered on whole foods and minimal added sugar.
“There is strong evidence showing that lower intake of added sugars is associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease in adults and moderate evidence for reduced risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancers in adults,” Freeman says.
She offers these tips for minimizing added sugar intake in the household:
- Make water and cow’s milk your No. 1 beverages of choice for kids.
- Read food labels and choose items that contain less than 10 grams of sugar per serving.
- Add fruit to whole grain cereal or oatmeal for natural sweetness, instead of buying sugary cereals.
- Swap out white sugar in baked goods for honey, which contains antioxidants; maple syrup, which provides potassium; or agave, which contains trace amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium.