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Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe for Babies and Children?

by Sharon Perkins

Many parents have heeded warnings that too much sugar can harm kids' teeth and increase the risk of childhood obesity. Since kids still clamor for sweets, you might turn instead to sweet treats made with artificial, rather than natural, sweeteners. However, artificial sugar might present its own set of potential problems in infants and children. The jury is still out as to exactly how harmful artificial sweetener is to growing little bodies, but in general, the less, the better, is a safe rule of thumb for any man-made food.

Potential Risks

Artificial sweetener risks have not been conclusively proven in clinical trials, despite what you might read. On the other hand, studies haven't conclusively proven it safe for infants and children, either. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has set limits on the amount of artificial sweetener infants and children should consume. Sugar alcohols mannitol and sorbitol cause diarrhea in adults, as well as children, when consumed in amounts over 50 grams per day of sorbitol or 20 grams per day of mannitol, according experts at Diet.com. Artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, used in some formulas, could cause irritability and muscle dysfunction in infants, although this is unproven, according to MedicineNet.

Obesity and Sweeteners in Children

A review of studies conducted by The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and published in the 2008 issue of "Obesity" found that an increased intake of artificial sweeteners correlated with an increase, rather than a decrease, in obesity. It's important to remember, though, that a correlation between two things doesn't mean that one thing -- artificial sweeteners -- causes the other -- obesity. Obese people might be more likely to drink diet soda or eat diet candy in an effort to save calories. Studies in young children indicate that those who ingest foods or drinks containing artificial sugar consume more food to compensate, according to an Emory University study published in the December 2011 Pediatric Clinical Journal of North America.

Contraindications

Children with phenylketonuria, better known as PKU, should never consume the artificial sweetener aspartame. Most hospitals test for this genetic disorder, which affects the body's ability to break down the amino acid phenylalanine, at birth. Because aspartame breaks down into phenylalanine, infants and children with PKU should not eat anything containing this sweetener. Manufacturers must put a warning label for people with PKU on foods and drinks made with aspartame.

Setting Limits

An occasional taste of a treat made with artificial sugar won't harm your child. However, babies have absolutely no reason to eat foods containing artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners could change the way people perceive food tastes, according to the Harvard Health Letter. Foods sweetened with artificial sugars also fill children up without providing any nutritional benefit, registered dietitian Karen Ansel warns on the Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition website. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that artificial sweeteners should not have significant place in a child's diet.

About the Author

A registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology, Sharon Perkins has also coauthored and edited numerous health books for the Wiley "Dummies" series. Perkins also has extensive experience working in home health with medically fragile pediatric patients.

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