What's the best natural substitute for sugar that’s safe for children?

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Not a day goes by without me seeing something on social media or in the news about how evil sugar is, but actually sugar is just a simple carbohydrate and it isn’t bad for children if it’s eaten in small amounts. 

The problems arise when children have too much sugar.

Now, I have two children and my eldest Charlie has a very sweet tooth. He’d much prefer to eat sugary things over savoury things, and this is completely normal.

Children are obsessed with all things sweet, but this doesn’t need to come as a surprise to you. As babies, they are born with highly sensitive sweet taste buds which have an evolutionary purpose – survival! 

A baby’s preference for sweet, helps them seek out and accept their mother’s milk. This preference lasts throughout childhood. Kids don’t just like sweet foods, they love it! (11)

The preferred intensity of sweetness for a child is almost twice that of adults. For example, most adults would agree that a boiled sweet was sweet enough, however most kids would prefer something twice as sweet! 

How children experience taste is very different from us adults, and it’s often this mismatch that drives us bonkers as parents when all our little ones want is the sweet stuff.

What's the best natural substitute for sugar that’s safe for children? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Why isn’t sugar bad?

Sugars belong to the family of carbohydrates. Some of the more common types of sugar you may have heard of include:

  • fructose, which is naturally found in fruit, 

  • lactose, which is naturally found in milk and 

  • sucrose, which is the scientific name for the type of sugar that you probably have in your cupboard at home. This is often referred to as ‘free sugar’.

Each of these types of sugar contain 3.75 calories for every gram of sugar – this means that you get 15 calories for every teaspoon of sugar that you eat.

Sugar tastes sweet, that’s why we enjoy it! When we eat something sweet our brains are stimulated. (1)
We may feel comfort or pleasure, and that feels good! 

Sugar is very easily digested in the body and converted into energy. It’s a simple process and nothing dangerous is happening in your child’s body when they eat sugar. This has been knowledge for a long time and Doctors know exactly what sugar does.

What’s the best natural substitute for sugar that’s safe for children? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

What happens when children have too much sugar?

We know that having too much sugar can put both adults and children at increased risk of weight gain, which in turn can make you at increased risk of diabetes or heart disease (2)
. This is because sugar contains calories and excess calories make you gain weight.

Sugar is also the main cause of tooth decay, but we don’t need to worry about the sugar that is found naturally in foods such as fruit and milk as this is nicely packaged inside the foods structure and so these sugars are not free to cause tooth damage. (3)

Table sugar (white or brown) is free sugar and it’s this that can cause tooth decay. Likewise, when fruit is turned into a juice, the natural fructose becomes a free sugar because it’s no longer packaged up and this too isn’t good for our dental health.

Free sugars should be avoided as much as possible in children under 4 years of age and especially in children under 1. If your child does eat something sugary, try to limit the amount of time that the sugar is near their teeth by rinsing their mouth with water afterwards. (12)

Can I use a natural sugar substitute in foods and drinks for my child?

There are three kinds of natural sugar substitutes. Let’s take a look at each of them and compare how they match up against sugar.

What's the best natural substitute for sugar that’s safe for children? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Natural Sweeteners

Natural sweeteners include syrups, honey and alternative sugars such as coconut sugar. All of these foods are in fact sugar, they just go by another name!  

One difference between table sugar and these alternative natural sugars is that they are often (but not always) less refined and therefore retain more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants when they hit the supermarket shelves.

But I wouldn’t recommend that they are used for this reason only!  

With the exception of honey, they are safe for under 1’s but I do recommend that sugars and sweet foods are kept to a minimum in this age group, as babies already have a preference for sweet things that really does not need to be encouraged. Honey is safe when your little one is over 1 year old.

What's the best natural substitute for sugar that’s safe for children? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Coconut and date sugar 

These look a bit like brown sugar. They come from the coconut and date plants and they taste more like brown sugar. They have a deeper, almost caramel taste to them.  

You can use them in cooking and baking just as you would use sugar and there’s no need to adjust your recipes.

Honey 

Honey is pure liquid sugar and made by our bee friends. Did you know that bees only make approximately half a teaspoon of honey in their lifetime?  

Honey tastes sweeter than sugar and so you often need to use less of it in your recipes. Honey will also taste different depending on the flowers that the bees have harvested from.  

You can use honey to replace sugar in your recipes. If you are baking, there are a few key rules to follow:

  1. For every 200g (1 cup) of sugar, use 160ml (⅔ cup) of honey.

  2. For every 240ml (1 cup) of honey that you use, take away 60ml (¼ cup) of other liquids from the recipe.

  3. Reduce the cooking temperature by 5 degrees Celsius.

What’s the best natural substitute for sugar that’s safe for children? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Syrups – maple, brown rice, agave, treacle, golden, molasses 

These are also sugar in a liquid form. They will make your bakes ever so slightly caramel in flavour. They are well suited to adding to cookies and traybakes and to savoury recipes that call for sugar.  

For baking with syrups, I recommend following the same rules as I describe for honey.

Mashed fruit

Mashed bananas, apples or dates are great for baking with and often a great way for using up overripe fruit!  

We all know that there are health benefits to fruit and when compared to sugar, using fruit includes additional vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre!  

The swap however, isn’t quite as straight-forward as some other alternatives so it may be best to look for a specific recipe that uses fruit as the sugar component and have a read of the reviews before you try to make it. 

Be prepared for quite a bit of trial and error in your baking. Mashed fruits often result in a softer bake, you won’t get that same texture.

What’s the best natural substitute for sugar that’s safe for children? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

As a starting point I would recommend swapping 200g (1 cup) of sugar for 240g (1 cup) of mashed fruit.  

Nevertheless, this mashed fruit option would also be my first choice for your little ones.

Sugar Alcohols

Better known as xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol. Sugar alcohols are often referred to as sweeteners. However, their name can be a bit misleading because sugar alcohols don’t contain any sugar or alcohol but their chemical shape is similar to both. 

In the UK shops you can commonly find xylitol in the aisle with the sweeteners, near the tea and coffee. You are more likely to see the other sugar alcohols listed on ingredients labels rather than available to buy on their own.  

Xylitol is a naturally found sugar and was originally extracted from the birch trees but is now extracted from many different plants! It has a sweet taste similar to that of table sugar and also looks extremely similar.  

Be aware, eating large amounts of any sugar alcohol can cause a laxative effect and lead to loose stools (runny poo), bloating and flatulence (wind).

You can cook and bake with xylitol the same as if you were using sugar.  If you need a teaspoon of sugar, you would use the same amount of xylitol. Xylitol however does not melt, so you cannot use xylitol when you need liquid sugar, for example when making caramel. (4)

Sugar alcohols have less calories than table sugar. A teaspoon contains 9.6 calories which is a third less than a teaspoon of sugar.  

Sugar alcohols are safe for children up to the maximum accepted daily limit set by the government. (5)
However EU legislation prohibits sweeteners being used in food products that are specifically prepared for infants and young children up to 3 years of age. 

This is not because they are dangerous (14)
, it’s because children have very high nutritional requirements for their size and so need every opportunity to maximise their nutrition. (6)

Because of this, if you are going to give your child a sweetened food, they would be better off having a sugar sweetened food rather than one with sugar alcohols.

What’s the best natural substitute for sugar that’s safe for children? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Artificial Sweeteners (that are actually natural!)

Steviol glycoside or ‘Stevia’ is a sweetener that is extracted from the stevia plant leaves, a herb which grows in South America. It contains zero calories and is said to be 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar! (7)

You can buy a few different types of stevia sweetener – from tablets to be used in hot drinks to a powdered style which is intended to replace sugar spoon for spoon in your baking recipes.  

I’d recommend checking the information label on the packet as sometimes the manufacturer may mix stevia with other ingredients too.  

Your finished creations shouldn’t be too different to when you use sugar however you may notice that they have a bit of a different texture as sugar also adds moisture and lightness to your bakes (8)
that stevia doesn’t.

Stevia has been shown to be safe for children up to the acceptable daily limit of 4mg/kg of body weight set by the European Food Safety Authority. Whilst many children eat less than this, we know that toddlers are the group most likely to eat over this amount.  

Some of the common foods that may cause toddlers to exceed this are ice lollies, sweetened desserts and sweetened drinks. (13)
Using stevia in your home baking will add to your little one’s intake and so again my recommendation is that stevia best be avoided. Just use normal sugar or mashed fruit instead.

Other Artificial Sweeteners

There are additional artificial sweeteners including brands such as Canderel, Aspartame and Hermasetas. We haven’t covered those here as this blog is focused on ‘natural’ sweeteners and sugar alternatives. If you would like information on artificial sweeteners, the NHS website is a good place to start.

For your peace of mind, you should know that all of the sweeteners I have mentioned in this article have undergone rigorous safety testing by the European Food Safety Authority and are approved for use in the UK.(9)

There is still more to learn about whether eating foods made with sweeteners causes benefit or harm, as some studies lean towards them causing weight gain, type 2 diabetes and an increased preference for sweet foods, whereas others do not. As of January 2021, the current evidence
on future health is conflicting.(10)

What’s the best natural substitute for sugar that’s safe for children? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

In Summary

Keep sweet foods to a minimum for babies under age 1, irrespective of the sugar or sugar replacement foods that we have discussed. Babies need to learn to like non-sweet foods and offering sweet things discourages this.

For toddlers and children under 4, it’s best to sweeten foods with sugar, honey, syrups and mashed fruits but remember children have a strong desire for sweet foods and will ask for these in preference to other food, so give sweet foods in small portions and as the exception rather than the rule. 

Sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners are best avoided until your child is over 3 but remember that preference for sweet foods stays with them until the late teenage years!

It’s best not to avoid sweet foods entirely with your children as they will just become even more desirable especially as they get older, but please don’t handle sweet foods as if they are anything special or a treat. Children should grow up learning that sweet foods are simply just food alongside pasta or carrots!

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

 

With thanks to Claire Pearson, Registered Dietitian
for her research into this article.

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