On Call: Alternatives to Sugar

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On Call: Alternatives to Sugar

Q. I'm trying to limit how many sweet and fattening foods my child eats. Is it okay to give him things that are artificially sweetened?

A. This is a good question because artificial sweeteners are in so many foods these days. While there have been concerns in the past about their safety (saccharin, for example, was thought to cause cancer and aspartame to cause seizures and brain tumors), after many scientific studies the FDA, the American Dietetic Association, and the World Health Organization have declared them safe at reasonable levels (a 45-pound child, for instance, would have to drink four diet sodas or eat ten artificially sweetened yogurts to get above the accepted daily intake of aspartame, about 900 milligrams). However, kids under 2 shouldn't have them.

Sweeteners such as sorbitol and mannitol, often found in juices and sodas, aren't inherently dangerous but can cause diarrhea since they aren't absorbed and can act as laxatives. If your child has a case of diarrhea, avoid them. Other sweeteners, such as sucralose (Splenda), don't appear to pose a health risk, based on the studies to date.Children for whom the artificial-sweetener question is totally clear: Diabetics, who have to limit their sugar intake, must use them, and those with phenylketonuria (a genetic disease of metabolism that all newborns are tested for at birth), for whom aspartame (sometimes called Nutrasweet) is dangerous.

For everyone else, the question is: Why bother? While I think it's okay if your child occasionally eats artificially sweetened foods, I wouldn't choose them over foods sweetened with sugar. Instead, try to limit the amount of sweet foods he eats in general, and give him fruits and vegetables and other things that are natural and healthy.