Is Stevia Safe for Infants?
While feeding a baby lots of artificially sweetened foods is never advised, sometimes an infant who has started solids might express interest in a taste of mom's snack that includes stevia. Before introducing any artificial sweetener to your baby's diet, you should talk to a pediatrician about appropriate food choices and when to introduce specific solids to your child.
Stevia comes from a South American plant, but only one highly refined portion of the plant has been approved in the US for use as a commercially available food sweetener. The particular component, rebaudioside A, is one of the plant's two main glycosides, the sweet-tasting compounds produced by stevia leaves. The whole leaves and preparations containing stevioside, the other major glycoside, are available as dietary supplements, which are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration.
In studies of laboratory animals, neither of the two glycosides had any toxic effects. Stevioside lowered blood sugar in one small study, but other studies have shown mixed results and no studies have linked rebaudioside A with blood sugar effects. However, just because the FDA has designated specific stevia preparations made of refined rebaudioside A as "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS, doesn't mean that there are no effects. No specific studies have been done looking at the safety of stevia with infants or children.
Other artificial sweeteners have also been designated as GRAS by the FDA and seem to pose no risk to a baby when consumed on an infrequent basis in small doses. Currently approved sweeteners include sucralose, aspartame, neotame, saccharine and acesulfame potassium. Natural sweeteners are also approved as safe for human consumption, including by babies or small children. Approved natural sweeteners include sugar, date sugar, maple syrup and molasses. Honey should not be given to babies under 1 year old.
Feeding sweet-tasting substances to a baby might encourage him to seek out sweet-tasting foods later in life, explains pediatrician William Sears, M.D. This could lead to obesity and unhealthy eating patterns in the future. Instead of feeding your child foods sweetened with stevia, sugar or other added sweeteners, offer naturally sweet foods such as fruit and sweet vegetables to help him make better food choices in the years to come.