Question: I've read that some schools are considering not allowing the sale of beverages with low-calorie sweeteners. Is there a question about the safety of the sweeteners?
Answer: The entire matter of what beverages should be available for children to buy at school seems to be fraught with controversy and confusion. Many school districts and their boards of trustees have examined the matter in an effort to set policy around beverage sales in schools. In the heat of debate it is often easy for the issues to get confused.
However, the safety of low-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame should not be a concern, as the safety of these ingredients has been well established by years of sound scientific research. In fact, low-calorie sweeteners, or sugar substitutes, would not be allowed on the market or as ingredients in foods and beverages if they had not been thoroughly tested and declared safe by authoritative health and regulatory agencies including the US Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada, the European Food Safety Authority and many others.
The debate surrounding beverages in schools includes a wide range of questions such as:
- Should schools sign contracts with soft drink companies as a means to raise money to support school activities like sports programs and field trips?
- Should school children have access to vending machines to purchase beverages at school?
- If beverages are available at school, should the options be limited to 'healthier' choices? If so, what criteria should be used to determine what choices will be available?
- If beverages are not available at school, will children be tempted to leave the school property to buy a cold drink at a convenience store?
- Regardless of what products are available, what about waste management and recycling issues related to the beverage containers?
Some schools have even questioned the common practice of selling bottled water, not because of concern about water but rather due to concerns about the safety and environmental impact of the plastic bottles. Others have questioned the sale of soft drinks, because of their 'empty calories' (i.e. calories without nutrients), especially in view of the prevalence of overweight and obesity among school-aged children. A policy of offering diet soft drinks (sweetened with aspartame) certainly avoids the empty calorie concern and helps address the obesity issue. However, it does not satisfy those who believe that no soft drinks should be sold in schools because children should be taught to choose more nutritious beverages.
The bottom line: Although parents may have many valid concerns about what beverages, if any, are available for their children to buy at school, the safety of low-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame used in diet soft drinks shouldn't be of concern. Debate should focus on the real issues without raising red flags needlessly. To single out aspartame or similar low-calorie sweeteners as a concern is simply not warranted by the scientific evidence.
Nancy Schwartz, PhD, Oakville, ON, is a registered dietitian and provides expert counsel to the Aspartame Resource Center.