Artificial sweeteners are a growing part of our diets and in the US are now consumed by at least one in four children.
A policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, is recommending future research into how they affect children’s weight, taste preferences, the risk for type 2 diabetes, and long-term safety.
Carissa Baker-Smith, from the University of Maryland, School of Medicine, said “Looking at the evidence, we found there’s still a lot to learn about the impact of artificial sweeteners on children’s health. Considering how regularly artificial sweeteners are now consumed as part of our diet, we need more research into the use of sweeteners and the risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes, especially in children. “
Artificial sweeteners were introduced into the food supply more than 60 years ago to mimic the taste of sugar without adding calories.
When they were first introduced, health concerns focused on a potential risk of cancer, which was not borne out in subsequent research. Health concerns around these products have now shifted. Rising levels of obesity have increased use of these products, and attention is directed at conflicting evidence over whether these sweeteners actually help control weight.
The majority of short-term studies suggest that substituting artificial sweeteners for sugar may reduce weight gain and promote small amounts of weight loss in children. However, data is limited.
There is also research suggesting links between the use of artificial sweeteners and changes in appetite and taste preferences, as well as in the gut microbiome, which may affect blood glucose levels and lead to metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, diabetes, and weight gain. But findings remain inconsistent.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that food and beverage manufacturers report sweetener content on food and beverage labels, rather than just listing them among ingredients, since they are now so widely available and consumed.
“It is currently hard to know how much non-nutritive sweetener is in a product since manufacturers aren’t required to specify,” Dr Baker-Smith said.
“Listing the amount of non-nutritive sweetener a product contains would help families and researchers understand how much is actually being consumed by individuals and populations and further evaluate potentially related health effects,” Dr Baker-Smith said.
Research suggests many parents in the US aren’t aware their child is consuming these products. One study found that only 23 per cent of parents can correctly identify food products that contain non-nutritive sweeteners.
In addition, 53 per cent of parents said they seek items labeled as “reduced sugar,” but most did not recognize that the sweet taste was instead being provided by a non-nutritive sweetener.
Knowing the amounts of sweeteners in products would also help ensure children’s consumption remains below acceptable daily intake levels, Dr Baker-Smith said.