Not all Sugars, Sweeteners Created Equal



Mommy, I’m hungry and thirsty. Can I have some juice and chips?

We have all heard this question and want to provide the best nutrition to our children. As parents, we wonder, “What types of nutrition can provide the best source of energy needed for our children?” Continue reading as I explain the role of carbohydrates, sweeteners and healthy snack ideas.


Carbohydrates are your child’s most important and readily available source of energy. In the past, carbohydrates have been blamed for the obesity epidemic in America, but the reality is, unrefined carbs (vegetables, fruit, etc.) are part of a healthy diet for kids.

When your child consumes carbohydrates, they are broken down into simple sugars, which are absorbed into their bloodstream. As their sugar level rises, their pancreas releases the hormone insulin. This is needed to move sugar from the blood into cells, where sugar can be used as energy. Carbohydrates help give your child energy in sports and other activities. Not all carbs are created equal though.


The 2010 dietary guidelines recommend that Americans eat more unrefined (good) carbs. They also recommend kids should increase their whole grain consumption and limit the intake of added sugar. Rather than purchasing flavored breakfast oatmeal, buy plain and mix in fruit, cinnamon, nuts or maple syrup.

There are two major forms of carbohydrates:

  1. Simple sugars (fructose, glucose and lactose)—better known as simple carbohydrates. These are found in nutritious whole fruits like apples, bananas and oranges.
  2. Starches (vegetables, grains, rice, breads and cereals—better known as complex carbohydrates.

What about Sweeteners in Place of Sugar? 

The role of sweeteners is to “sweeten” as sugar or in place of real sugar. Most sweeteners are in the form of low-calorie synthetic product that tastes like real sugar.

If you plan to use sweeteners, it’s recommended to use natural sweeteners rather than artificial sweeteners. Here’s why. Natural sweeteners are produced by nature (not in a factory). The most popular forms of natural sweeteners are stevia, maple syrup, honey, agave extract, molasses, barley malt, rice syrups and date sugar. Artificial sweeteners are chemicals or natural compounds added to foods to provide sweetness, without adding calories.

Examples of well-known artificial sweeteners are:

  • Acesulfame-K
  • Alitame
  • Aspartame
  • Neotame
  • Saccharin
  • Sucralose

Hint: Sucralose (with an “L” in the middle) is an artificial sweetener, and sucrose is normal table sugar.

Clinical Nutrition Manager, Linda Heller, MS RD CSP CLE, does not recommend artificial sweeteners for children unless it is for a medically necessary situation. If your child is healthy, she recommends, “Limit sugar laden foods and avoid use or overuse of foods containing artificial sweeteners.” Linda and her team of dietitians at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles do not recommend artificial sweeteners for infants and children.

Health Tip: Do not give your infant honey; this is unsafe.

"Honey should not be fed to infants younger than 1 year old because bacteria called Clostridium can contaminate certain foods and honey in particular. The contaminated honey and its bacteria can cause infant botulism a life threatening muscle weakness, with signs such as poor sucking, weak cry, constipation and overall decreased muscle tone (floppiness). Parents can reduce the risk of infant botulism by not introducing honey or any processed foods containing honey into their baby's diet until after their first birthday,” shares Philippe S. Friedlich, MD, physician in the Newborn and Infant Critical Care Unit (NICCU) at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Best Tips for Limiting Artificial Sweeteners 

To limit your child’s intake of artificial sweeteners, consider these tips from Registered Dietician, Emily LaRose RD, CNSD, CSP, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles:

  • Give your child only 100 percent fruit juice.
  • Stack up on whole fruits as healthy snacks and a better alternative to 100% fruit juice.
  • Serve your child’s juice in a cup, never a bottle.
  • Juice for young kids should be diluted—half juice with half water.
  • Avoid giving your child soda and processed foods. These are full of hidden sugars like molasses, brown rice syrup and corn syrup.

Be mindful how much sweet food (even fruit) you give your child—always incorporate vegetables as much as possible. Steven Mittleman, MD, PhD, director, Diabetes and Obesity Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles states, “Giving your child sweet foods (even artificially sweet) promotes eating and drinking sweet things, which makes it more difficult for your child to eat (and enjoy) veggies and other foods that are less sweet.”

This grid from the American Academy of Pediatrics is a helpful resource about daily juice recommendations for children.

Age: Younger than 6 Months | Do not give fruit juice to infants younger than 6 months since it offers no nutritional benefit at this age.

Age: 1 to 6 year old | Limit juice to 4 to 6 ounces per day. For children older than 6 months, fruit juice offers no nutritional benefits over whole fruits. Whole fruits also provide fiber and other nutrients. Do not allow your child to carry a cup or box of juice throughout the day.

Age: 7 to 18 years old | Limit juice to 8 to 12 ounces per day.

Although there's no added sugar in 100% fruit juice, the calories from natural sugars found in fruit juice can add up. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting juice intake listed in the chart above.

Healthy Snack Ideas 

Here are some great snacks that contain natural sweeteners and provide a good source of energy:

  • All-natural granola or granola bars
  • Apple slices with string cheese or peanut butter
  • Baby carrots
  • Celery sticks
  • Dried cereal
  • Fresh fruit
  • Homemade baby foods
  • Sweet potatoes or pureed fruit
  • Organic graham crackers with unsweetened applesauce for dipping
  • Organic yogurt

Snacks can be creative and fun for the whole family. One of my favorites is “ants on a log,” where you spread peanut butter on celery sticks and sprinkle them with raisins—yum!