Children are consuming artificial sweeteners at a rate that is alarming to some nutrition experts.
Consumption of artificial sweeteners is up 200 percent for children, and 54 percent for adults, according to a study published by The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The report took data from a cross sectional study using National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey information collected from 2009 to 2012.
The data was culled from nearly 17,000 participants, ages 2 and up.
Researchers looked at the artificial sweetener consumption of participants over a two-day period.
They assessed the number of times per day that the artificial sweeteners were consumed, whether they were consumed at home or away, and if they were consumed during mealtimes or snack time.
Approximately 25 percent of all children and 41 percent of all adults consumed artificial sweeteners. Of those, 80 percent of children and 56 percent of adults reported consuming artificial sweeteners at least once a day.
Women and participants considered obese tended to consume more artificial sweeteners than men, participants who were overweight, and participants who were at a normal weight.
People who identified as Caucasian also had a higher consumption rate compared to Latinos and African-Americans.
People with lower and middle incomes consumed more sweeteners than people with higher incomes.
Home sweet home
Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietician and consultant, noted that the children who participated in the study didn’t get a majority of their sweeteners from foods they ate outside of the home, such as restaurants or cafes.
“A majority of these foods were eaten at home,” she told Healthline. “The study showed a high prevalence with pediatric consumption of canned fruit, flavored oatmeal, and snack bars. This is consistent with what I see in my own practice, in addition to sugar-free juice options.”
Kirkpatrick said the report suggests that as “parents and children deal with weight-related issues, there may be more low sugar (artificial sweetener) foods in the home.”
Artificial sweeteners include saccharine, sucralose, and aspartame, among others. They’re commonly known by their brand names, Splenda, Sweet’N Low, and Equal.
These fake or non-nutritive sweeteners can be found in a wide range of highly processed and prepackaged foods.
Low-calorie drinks, crackers, and cookies, as well as other foods labeled as low-calorie, are some examples, according to Katie Ferraro, M.P.H., R.D.N., C.D.E., assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Nursing.
“You don’t find artificial sweeteners in whole foods, you tend to find them in highly processed foods,” she told Healthline. “The report implies that children are eating processed foods.”
Watch out for yogurt
There’s one other product that Ferraro believes is likely a big contributor in the rise of artificial sweeteners being consumed by children.
“Yogurt is a big culprit,” she said.
The yogurt market has exploded in recent years. Advertisers tend to tout the product’s ability to regulate digestion through its probiotic properties.
But unless your child is consuming plain yogurt, they’re also getting heaping doses of sugar.
“Ninety-five percent of the yogurt in the grocery store has added sugar,” Ferraro said. “A good rule of thumb is in an 8-ounce container there [should] only be 12 grams of sugar.”
That threshold accounts for the lactase, or milk sugar, that occurs naturally in yogurt, she noted.
Anything after that is added sweetener.
Ferrero said it’s important to remember that every four ounces equals one packet of sugar. If the yogurt you’re feeding your child lists 25 grams of sugar, they’re eating about six packets of sugar.
She encourages parents to serve their children plain yogurt with fruit added.
Low-calorie fruit juice is another product that also has a lot of sweetener, Ferraro noted.
In general, she said parents need to cut back on the amount of juice they let their kids drink, low-calorie or otherwise.
“Parents mistakenly think they are healthy,” Ferraro said. “Kids only need to drink milk and water.”
How to find healthy foods
The best line of defense for any parent when it comes to reducing the amount of sugar — natural or artificial — their child consumes is to read food labels.
“If there are words [on the label] that you can’t pronounce you probably shouldn’t give it to your child.” she said.
Ferraro, who has quadruplets, and another child, all under the age of 2, knows how challenging is can be to cook healthy meals made with whole foods.
She understands the convenience that processed and packaged food brings for busy families. But it also comes with a price and the report reflects that.
“Kids should have whole, real impact foods,” she said.
And that takes time and planning.
“Healthy food doesn’t magically appear on the table,” she said.
Kirkpatrick said it’s OK to serve children nutrient-dense foods that allow for sweetness, but don't go overboard on the intensity of that ingredient.
At the grocery store this means avoid buying low-calorie items, such as diet lemonade. It may seem like the right choice because it has less real sugar, but in the end you’re simply swapping out real sugar for artificial sweetener.
“The main [artificial sweeteners] on the market are much more intense in sweetness than real sugar, and consuming them may in fact reduce sensitivity of sweetness. It’s important to understand this, so that you can be smart on making these healthier transitions,” she said. “Kicking a sweet tooth is tough, for both parents and kids, and these changes will not be solved overnight. They will, however, over time as you continue to eliminate intense sweetness from your child's taste buds.”
The long-term effects of consuming artificial sweetener are unclear.
One 2013 study from Harvard showed a link between sweetener consumption and type 2 diabetes. The report examined the long-term relationship between weight and the consumption of artificially sweetened drinks for approximately 3,700 individuals.
Participants were followed for seven to eight years and their weight monitored. After researchers adjusted for factors that contribute to weight gain including diet, exercise changes, or diabetes status, the study showed that those who drank artificially sweetened drinks had a 47 percent increase in body mass index (BMI) than those who did not.
Most experts agree that more research is needed to make the direct connection between weight gain and consumption of sweeteners.
According to the American Heart Association, children shouldn’t consume more than 25 grams of sugar a day. That’s equal to about six teaspoons of sugar.
But the reality is that children ages 1 to 3 consume up to 12 teaspoons of sugar a day.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ position on artificial sweeteners is that “consumers can safely enjoy a range of nutritive sweeteners and non-nutritive sweeteners when consumed within an eating plan that is guided by current federal nutrition recommendations,” but a “higher intake of added sugars is associated with higher energy intake and lower diet quality, which can increase the risk for obesity, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”
By 2018, it will be easier to figure out how much sugar your child is consuming.
Food companies will have to differentiate between the sugar that occurs naturally in a food product and the sugar added by the manufacturer.