Are non-nutritive sweeteners safe for my child to consume?
A recent article about non-nutritive sweeteners in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Acadamy of Pediatrics, peaked my interest because use of these ingredients in products is often related to reduction in the amount of sugar in a child's daily diet. I thought parents and caretakers would be interested in what we know and don't know about non-nutritive sweeteners in products made for toddlers and young children.
So, what exactly are non-nutritive sweeteners? I'm sure you've seen these non-nutritive sweeteners in the baking section of stores stacked on the shelves near table sugar and other sweeteners. Most are artificial meaning they are chemically made. A couple of them might be familiar to such as sucralose (known under the trade name Splenda®) or acesulfame potassium (known under the trade names Sunett® or Sweet One®). Some people recognize these chemically derived sweeteners by the yellow, blue or pink packets in which the various brands are packaged. There are two natural sweeteners, Stevia and monk fruit. Stevia is the natural constituent in the leaf of the plant called Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni and the ingredient panel on the label will identify it by its scientific name "Steviol glycosides". Monk fruit is also called luo han guo and is a small subtropical melon that is sold as a juice or powder.
Some reasons why non-nutritive sweeteners are used are reduction in the amount of sugar being used in the daily diet; weight control; diabetes; reduction in cardiovascular risk factors; or simply a preference for the taste of the sweetener. Many question whether toddlers and young children should be consuming products with non-nutritive sweeteners, especially those that are chemically derived. The Pediatrics article notes that non-nutritive sweeteners may help with weight control in children; as a source of sweetness in foods for children with diabetes while also not affecting blood sugar levels, and for children with metabolic or cardiovascular risks like high cholesterol levels. Also noted is that more research needs to be done on the long-term health effects of these sweeteners and if they should be used sparingly. When shopping and looking for "reduced sugar" products, make sure to read the ingredient labels. Non-nutritive sweeteners can be in many and all types of products like yogurt, sodas, gums, candies, mouthwash, and even toothpaste.
If your child's healthcare provider determines that a non-nutritive sweetener does have a place in your child's overall diet, my preference would be to look for products with natural, non-nutritive sweeteners that have been certified organic. The organic options allowed at present by the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture are organic steviol glycosides, i.e. Stevia, or organic monk fruit. As always, look for the USDA organic seal to ensure quality products without nasty chemicals like pesticides and herbicides.
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**For specific medical care and nutritional advice on product usage, please see your healthcare professional