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Why ‘sugar-free’ is not recommended as a substitute for sugary drinks and foods

Updated Friday, 22nd September 2017
Should children be consuming artificial sweeteners? And, furthermore, what research supports or discourages the consumption of 'sugar-free' products?

A selection of artificial sweeteners.

Many companies producing sugar-sweetened drinks, such as fizzy drinks or concentrated squash, or foods such as yoghurts, promote ‘sugar-free’ or low-sugar versions with artificial sweeteners.

As artificial sweeteners are not calorific like sugar, these products are generally permitted to be advertised to children according to the UK guidelines that determine food and drink that may be advertised on children’s television programming. The same rules were adopted in 2017 to guide items that may be advertised to children on the internet.

And yet health advocates and other health promoting organisations recommend that items with artificial sweeteners should not be part of children’s ‘advertised diet’. This includes the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe that has developed a set of guidelines for assessing foods that should or should not be advertised to children.

Why is this – isn’t ‘low-cal’ healthier?

One reason that even ‘low-cal’ drinks and foods are a cause for health campaigners’ concern is the fact that all advertising promotes a brand. If a brand is primarily known for a sugar-added fizzy drink, even ads promoting a low-sugar version promote brand awareness for the sugary version.

A second concern is that children who are used to artificially sweetened drinks and foods may develop an increased preference for sweet flavours, leading them to seek out more sugary foods in the future.

And third, research shows mixed findings about health benefits of artificial sweeteners. Some research suggests that using low-calorie sweetener promotes weight loss, but other studies show no effect – and some even suggest the opposite. Most recently, a review of effects of artificial sweeteners collected evidence from studies involving a total of over 400,000 participants. It found that weight loss benefits of artificial sweeteners had not been demonstrated, and that some studies even indicated greater weight and waist circumference among users, and also reported higher incidence of high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and heart-related risk. The review concluded that it was too early to state that artificial sweeteners were risk-free.

As the long-term effects of children consuming artificial sweeteners are also unknown, it’s considered better for children to drink water.


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