Given the skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity, you’d think giving kids calorie-free sugar substitutes would be a good thing, right? Not so much. “The amount of added sweetness—real or artificial—in foods and beverages has gone up dramatically, and it’s changing our tastes overall, causing us to crave and overeat sugar,” says Greene. Indeed, studies have found that drinking diet soda is associated with weight gain, even among children. Some artificial sweeteners have also been implicated—and then vindicated—in a variety of health problems, most prominently cancer.
Should you worry? Probably. “While no hard-and-fast data shows a link between saccharin, aspartame or sucralose and disease in humans, there is suspicion fueled by animal studies,” says Natterson. Plus, fake sugar doesn’t necessarily help curb obesity—and may even be contributing to it.
What can you do? Stick with natural sweeteners—white sugar or honey, for example—and allow children to enjoy them in moderation. “A home-baked cookie made with real sugar is a lot healthier than high-volume consumption of artificially sweetened treats,” Natterson notes.