Children, both toddlers and pre-teens, love sugary treats. However, an excess of the same can fill them up with empty calories and lead to problems like obesity and juvenile diabetes. This is the reason why many health-conscious parents are trying to find alternatives that have fewer calories and are less harmful. However, low-calorie beverages and foods are often leading kids to consume more sugar substitutes than what is healthy for them. This brings us to the topic of artificial sweeteners.

Artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes are chemicals that are added to foods or drinks for a sweet taste or flavour. They consist of zero or fewer calories, i.e. they are non-nutritive sweeteners. In other words, our body is not able to break them down and therefore, the calories provided are zero. Some products that have sugar substitutes in them are jams and jellies, yoghurts, puddings, cakes, pastries and various fruit cups.

Consumption trend of artificial sweeteners

They are termed as “intense sweeteners”, as the taste provided by them is a thousand times sweeter than that of table sugar. According to nutrition experts, the consumption of artificial sweeteners among kids is increasing at an alarming rate. According to a study issued in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, artificial sweetener consumption is approximately 200 percent in children and 54 percent in adults.

The data collected is from a “cross-sectional study” in the year 2009 to 2012, considering the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey information. A total of 17,000 subjects were studied, from the age of 2 years and above. The researchers studied the consumption of artificial sweeteners for two days. The researchers studied the number of times artificial sweeteners were consumed, whether at home or away and whether the use was with the main meal or at snack-time. Consumption of artificial sweeteners was noted to be approximately 25% by kids and 41% by adults. Out of these, around 80 percent kids and 56 percent adults consumed artificial sweeteners every day.

Increased consumption of canned foods, flavoured oatmeal, sugar-free canned juices and bars among kids was observed. This was found to result in weight issues.

Artificial sweetener consists of saccharine, sucralose, aspartame and others. These sugar substitutes are present in processed and packaged foods and not in whole foods.

How do these artificial sweeteners affect children?

As per WHO, the consumption of sugar per day for a child should be no more than 25 grams i.e. 6 tsp. Now, modern parents often wonder if sugar substitutes are a healthy alternative for kids. There are sugar substitutes such as aspartame, saccharine, neotame, acesulfame-K and sucralose that do not result in birth abnormality or cancers and are not associated with any behavioural problems. Only small quantities of sugar substitutes are needed as well, as they are a hundred times sweeter than sugar.

Artificial sweeteners for children are not worrisome if consumed in small quantities. But anything in excess can be harmful. Stocking up the fridge with ice-creams or flavoured drinks loaded with sugar-substitute is not healthy and contributes to empty calories.

The relation between artificial sweeteners and diseases

There have been no studies to prove if there is an association between the consumption of sweeteners and cancer in people. There has been no proof indicating the link between sugar substitute and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), birth abnormalities or lupus.

However, some studies indicate a possible relation between consumption of sugar-substitutes and change in appetite and preferences in kids. It ultimately affects the height and weight of the kids. Research is being carried out to study the effect of artificial sweeteners on the gut- microflora and it is believed that it might have an impact on blood glucose levels, resulting in metabolic syndrome, reduced insulin sensitivity and diabetes mellitus.

In a study conducted in 2013, an association was observed between the consumption of sweeteners and diabetes. The study was based on 3,700 individuals, and it examined the relationship between the use of sugar substitutes and weight. The subjects were followed up on their weight for approximately 7-8 years.

The results showed that those individuals who consumed sugar-substitute drinks had an increase in body mass index (BMI) by 47 percent compared to those who did not consume sugar substitutes.

All in all, the consumption of artificial sweeteners within limits is safe for kids. However, a higher intake of the same can increase the chances of obesity, pre-diabetes, diabetes and heart ailments in the future. The good news is that FSSAI has strict regulations in place to govern the use of artificial sweeteners, and as long as you buy sweet food items from reputed brands, your child should not be at risk, given the consumption is moderate.

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