Ask Dr. Sears: Artificial Sweeteners for Kids?

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Ask Dr. Sears: Artificial Sweeteners for Kids?

Q. I recently had gastric-bypass surgery, and I'm supposed to consume only sugar-free foods and drinks. Is it safe for my 17-month-old son to also eat products sweetened with Splenda or other artificial sweeteners? I haven't let him have any, but he always wants a taste of what I'm eating or drinking.

A. Babies are natural copycats, but no matter how much your son begs, I strongly advise against feeding him foods that contain artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame and even the specific sweetener you mentioned, Splenda (sucralose). Here's why:

They haven't been proven safe for children.

I have carefully researched the safety of artificial sweeteners for my upcoming book, The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood (September 2006). Even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted artificial sweeteners the status of "generally regarded as safe" (GRAS), I came across several controversial findings. In his book Excitotoxins, board-certified neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Blaylock reviews the studies on aspartame and concludes that it is not safe, especially for the growing brains of children. Aspartame contains four calories per teaspoon, compared to the 16 in table sugar. Is saving a mere 12 calories really worth the potential risks of feeding these chemicals to your child? In regards to Splenda, the manufacturer states that, because the body doesn't digest or metabolize Splenda, it is a "no calorie" sweetener. According to the research reports in the Federal Register (the official publication of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), however, 20 to 30 percent of ingested Splenda is indeed metabolized by humans. And animal studies have resulted in wide individual variations concerning the amount of Splenda absorbed. Consider, also, that there are no studies on the long-term effects of the sweetener on humans, either adults or children. Even if most of the Splenda is not absorbed, as the manufacturer claims, it still hangs around in the gut for many hours—and I'm not convinced that this contributes to intestinal health!

It shapes growing tastes in the wrong direction.

One of the most important nutritional goals in early infancy is to shape your child's tastes. You want your son to prefer the natural sweetness of real, wholesome foods like fruits and vegetables. In my experience, babies who are fed only such foods grow up to shun the chemical taste of artificial sweeteners. These children associate eating well with feeling good. When they taste an artificially sweetened drink, such as a diet soda, they often complain of "yucky-tummy." Their body tells them that the stuff is not good for them. On the other hand, if your infant is fed a steady diet of artificially sweetened foods and drinks, he will grow up thinking this is what food is supposed to taste like. As long as the safety of factory-made sweeteners remains in question, my advice to parents is to follow the safest route: When in doubt, leave it out.

Offer sweet substitutes.

Cinnamon is a sweet-tasting spice that has recently been shown to have a beneficial effect on stabilizing blood insulin levels. Sprinkle cinnamon on oatmeal or in a smoothie. Try fruit toppings. Instead of sweetened yogurt (avoid any yogurts labeled "light"—these almost always contain artificial sweeteners), try plain yogurt mixed with a tablespoon of fresh or thawed frozen blueberries.

Although bypass-surgery nutrition falls beyond the scope of my expertise, I do recommend that you thoroughly research the advice you've been given to use artificial sweeteners instead of natural ones. Good science makes good sense, and this just does not make good sense to me. In the interest of your own health and that of your baby, I suggest you consult a nutritional expert who is very knowledgeable about nutrition following bypass surgery.