The number of children in the United States regularly consuming food and beverages containing low-calorie sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose and saccharin has jumped by 200 percent since 1999, according to a new study by researchers at the George Washington University.
A nationwide nutrition survey conducted by researchers at GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health found 25.1 percent of children regularly intake low-calorie sweeteners that some studies link to diabetes, obesity and other health issues. That is compared to only 8.7 percent of children reporting the same consumption habits in 1999.
Allison Sylvetsky, an assistant professor of exercise and nutrition sciences, was lead author on the study, which was published in a Tuesday issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The study is the first to look at consumption of low-calorie sweeteners in food, beverages and packets using information from 2012, the most recent data for the U.S. population.
Low-calorie sweeteners are often used in place of added sugars like sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved several of these sweeteners, including acesulfame-potassium, advantame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose.
Children aren’t alone in this trend—41 percent of adults are eating and drinking low-calorie sweeteners in diet soft drinks and snack items.
Researchers looked at data from nearly 17,000 men, women and children included in the National Health and Nutrition Evaluation Survey from 2009 to 2012 and compared the findings to their prior analysis using data from 1999 to 2008. They used the survey results from two dietary interviews where consumers recalled what they ate or drank during a previous 24-hour period.
The survey found 44 percent of adults and 20 percent of children consumed low-calorie sweeteners more than once a day, and that 17 percent of adults had food or beverages sweetened with these products three or more times a day.
Researchers also found those surveyed with higher rates of obesity were more likely to consume low-calorie sweeteners.
There is no scientific consensus on the health impacts connected to low-calorie sweeteners. Some studies suggest the use of foods and drinks containing low-calorie sweeteners can help with weight loss. Others have shown that consumption of diet drinks and foods may lead to weight gain.
Most parents and many experts challenge whether it is a good idea for kids to eat or drink lots of foods or beverages with such sweeteners. Despite those concerns, one out of four U.S. children are consuming these sweeteners and in most cases are eating foods or beverages containing low-calorie sweeteners at home.
Those findings suggest that parents may not realize the term “light” or “no added sugar” may mean that a product contains a low-calorie sweetener. Parents could be buying the light versions of the family favorites thinking they are healthier, Dr. Sylvetsky said.
Consumers who want to steer clear of low-calorie sweeteners or reduce the overall sweetness of their diet should follow the dietary guidelines put forth by the U.S. government. Stick to a diet with plenty of fruits and veggies, whole grains—and limit added sugars.
“Drink water instead of soda. Sweeten a serving of plain yogurt with a little fruit,” Dr. Sylvetsky said. “Don’t forget an apple or another piece of fresh fruit is a great snack for both kids and adults.”
Co-authors of the study include Kristina Rother at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Jean Welsh at Emory University and Yichen Jin, Elena Clark and Sameera Talegawkar at SPH.