We often hear a lot of talk about how too much sugar is bad for children and should only be consumed in moderation. An alternative to sugar is food sweeteners but these often get bad press too.
When you’re trying to do the best for your children, being faced with conflicting information is a bit of a minefield and it can be overwhelming to work out what the better option is.
So, what are the key safety issues in the sugar versus food sweeteners debate?
The main problem with sugar is that it rots teeth. In fact, it’s one of the leading causes of cavities in children’s teeth and both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ types of sugar play a part in this.
The ‘good’ types of sugar are natural and they’re found in foods such as fresh fruit, fruit juices, dried fruit or some vegetables.
These are thought of as good because they’re higher in other essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and fibre, which help make up a healthy balanced diet.
The ‘bad’ types of sugar aren’t natural, but are refined. Refined sugar can be found in foods such as cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolate, soft drinks and ice cream.
Unlike natural or ‘good’ sugar, they’re not a necessary or essential part of the diet and provide little, if any, nutritional benefit.
When you’re shopping for food, it’s not just as simple as looking for the word ‘sugar’ on the ingredients list.
Manufacturers are sneaky and use various descriptions, such as sucrose, glucose, corn syrup, dextrose or sorbitol – all of these refer to some form of sugar.
In a bid to cut down on the amount of sugar in some products, manufacturers often use food sweeteners instead.
These are certainly lower in calories than sugar (and favoured by dieters because of this!) and have less of an impact on teeth. Sweeteners can be found in all sorts of food, including yogurt, desserts, cakes, squash, fizzy drinks, low-calorie foods and chewing gum.
Bulk sweeteners, such as sorbitol (E420) are as sweet as sugar and are used in the same quantities in food. Intense sweeteners are up to 200 times sweeter than sugar, so only small amounts are used in foods. Examples of common intense sweeteners are aspartame (E951), saccharin (E954) and acesulfame-K (E950).
As a rule, products with sweeteners should be given in moderation to children under the age of four years old. If you’re giving them squash, for example, it’s important to dilute it more than you would for an adult, so they don’t consume large amounts of sweeteners.
Useful points about sweeteners:
- Aspartame is also known as Nutrasweet.
- As sweeteners go, aspartame has got a controversial history. Some studies suggested a potential link to brain tumours, but no conclusive scientific evidence has been found.
- Saccharin is one of the oldest artificial sweeteners. It’s also been controversial, but it is endorsed by the World Health Organisation as being safe.
- Sorbitol has a laxative effect if consumed in large quantities.
- Acesulfame-K is about 200 times sweeter than sucrose.
- Artificial sweeteners can sometimes trigger allergic reactions, such as hives.
- People with a sensitivity to MSG may react to aspartame.
- Infants who suffer from phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic disease, shouldn’t consume aspartame.
When it comes to working out what is best for your child, it really does boil down to weighing up the pros and cons and making the decision that seems best to you, and for your child.
As with fats, sugar is fine in moderation, so a few sweets now and again as a treat isn’t going to have drastic consequences.
Some parents worry that sugar may aggravate ADHD and one study found that avoiding sugar reduced symptoms of restlessness and aggressiveness in hyperactive children.
However, experts say more research is needed, with both sugar and food sweeteners, to fully determine the effects on children.
If your children crave sweet food, then it’s worth trying to encourage them to eat naturally sweet food, rather than things laden with ‘bad’ refined white sugar or food sweeteners.
Ideas for healthier sweet snacks include dried fruit (raisins, apricots, dates etc) or chopped up pieces of fruit.