Are artificial sweeteners safe for kids?

There are 8 nonnutritive sweeteners currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These "high intensity" sweeteners, which are between 180 and 20,000 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose).

Although eight artificial sweeteners have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are no studies of their long-term effects in children. Those artificial sweeteners include:

  • acesulfame potassium
  • advantame
  • aspartame
  • luo han guo
  • neotame
  • saccharin
  • stevia
  • sucralose

As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), citing limited studies, has refrained from issuing any recommendations regarding their use in kids. 

Do artificial sweeteners effect blood sugar?

Artificial sweeteners have been touted as a safe alternative to sugar, with manufacturers claiming that they don’t contribute to tooth decay, obesity, or high blood sugar. However, a recent study in mice and adult humans found that artificial sweeteners altered the bacteria in the intestines, which in turn caused an increase in blood sugar. While these results are preliminary, they are prompting researchers to reexamine the role artificial sweeteners play in blood sugar. Other research suggests possible links between the sweeteners and changes in appetite and taste preferences in children, possibly affecting weight and health.

A scarcity of data, however, hasn’t kept manufacturers from adding artificial sweeteners to a growing number of kid-friendly foods such as cereal, popcorn, and more. The number of products with artificial sweeteners has quadrupled in recent years. While skeptics worry about the lack of safety data, proponents claim that the amount of artificial sweetener in most foods is unlikely to cause harm. 

Effect on taste preferences

Safety concerns aside, artificial sweeteners are hundreds or even thousands of times sweeter than sugar. Knowing that taste preferences develop in childhood, commonsense suggests that children who eat a variety of artificially sweetened foods are more likely to develop a preference for foods that are artificially sweetened rather than naturally sweet. 

Read nutritional labels

Until more data are available, parents are advised to avoid giving their children artificially sweetened foods. They are also urged to read food labels: Some foods advertised as “reduced sugar” or “no sugar added” actually contain one or more artificial sweeteners. And be wary of “fat free” and “reduced fat” foods, such as peanut butter and salad dressings, which often contain up to three times the amount of sugar found in full fat versions. 

For more on the best and worst sugar substitutes see “Sweet Nothings” by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a watchdog organization, and Environmental Nutrition, an independent nutrition newsletter.

Last updated February 10, 2020

Suggested Reads