Communicating The Connection Among Low- And No-Calorie Sweeteners, Safety, And Health

In the world of perceived public health nutrition enemies, low- and no-calorie sweeteners (LNCS) are often at the top of the heap. However, when we are faced with a communications environment where misinformation persists (and facts can be elusive), it is critical to ensure that the scientific evidence influencing consumer perceptions and eating behaviors contains more than a “grain” of truth.

Low- And No-Calorie Sweeteners: Bad Guys Or Bad Rap?

It may be surprising that low- and no-calorie sweeteners are among the most studied ingredients in the food supply. Before making it to market, comprehensive scientific research reports are submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with data that indicate each ingredient’s safety. A risk assessment factoring in the degree of potential hazard (through extensive toxicological testing) and exposure (based on consumption level) combine to inform ingredient safety levels. And, while this sounds relatively simple, in practice, it is anything but. Consider this:

  • Hazard testing is based on a wide variety of endpoints including effects on DNA (e.g., damage, mutations), metabolism and excretion, short/long-term impact of consumption, adverse events on vulnerable audiences (individuals with specific health conditions, babies in utero), and potential to cause allergic response.
  • Exposure is aimed at pinpointing an exact dosage, if any, where adverse effects may take place.

These factors inform the development of an “acceptable daily intake” or ADI– which is “the amount that can be ingested daily for a lifetime without appreciable health risk” and not only applies to the general population, but to vulnerable groups such as children and pregnant women.

It is important to note that while LNCS are often lumped together in today’s vernacular, each sweetener is its own formulation that has a unique metabolic footprint in the body. They are grouped together only by their capacity to impart sweetness. Some are absorbed into the bloodstream, while others are not. Some are metabolized in the liver and others are not. Some are excreted in the urine; others are excreted in fecal matter. FDA has an informative fact sheet that shows the number of packets of common LNCS a 130-pound woman would need to consume in a day to reach that ADI (spoiler alert – it’s A LOT).

It should be mentioned that ingredients are often assessed over time to ensure continued safety. For instance, two independent reviews were released in 2023 on aspartame and cancer risk. Sadly, these reviews serve as perfect examples of the confusion created by dueling reports of unequal validity. One designated the sweetener as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on “limited evidence” (interestingly enough, this is the same category the organization puts aloe vera and pickled vegetables in). Another entity determined that consuming aspartame does not lead to adverse health effects, including cancer, doubling down on past scientific reviews that it is safe within currently established levels. This caused FDA to weigh in to provide clarity in a very strongly worded statement that they disagree with concluding that aspartame is potentially carcinogenic.

Why Do We Care?

It may be easier to let low- and no-calorie sweetener misinformation dominate the headlines and airways than debunk the various myths that abound. As a mission-driven organization focused on effectively communicating science-based information about food safety, nutrition, and sustainable food systems, we at the International Food Information Council (IFIC) often cut through such misinformation and headwinds to expose the truth– particularly when consumer perception and sentiment are at odds with scientific evidence. LNCS are a prime example of where IFIC’s consumer survey data indicates significant confusion and lack of understanding. And, at a time when obesity (and severe obesity) prevalence is skyrocketing and diabetes and pre-diabetes rates are concerning, consumers need to have a whole cadre of tools to manage their own individual and family nutrition needs.

The trended IFIC Food & Health Survey demonstrates that lowering sugar intake is a desired diet change among many Americans. Many consumers cite the benefits of using LNCS, including consuming less sugar, enjoying sweet foods and beverages without added calories from sugar, managing weight, and controlling blood sugar. However, among those who prefer sugar to LNCS, 37% say that they believe they are not good for health. Of note, the respondents in this survey said that their opinions regarding LNCS have been informed by doing their own research (37%), talking to a health professional (26%), news reports and articles (22%), and talking to friends and family (20%).

Our Words Hold Real Weight.

As with many other food, nutrition, and health topics, it is vital that the information readily available to consumers – whether read or through talking to someone they trust – be science-based and highly credible. Yes, science is technical, nuanced, and can be complicated, but here are four ways to help manage sweetener misinformation and be part of the communications solution:

  1. Be human. Our words can add further burden and fear, or they can provide clarity and calm. Seek to understand the emotional drivers behind consumer questions and develop deeper trusted connections.
  2. Be deliberate about the language used to help clarify any LNCS confusion and foster more productive public discourse on LNCS safety (as a whole and individually) and their applications and uses. Check out these top three takeaways about LNCS safety for more information.
  3. Use evidence-based messaging to aid in restoring trust in science, while reducing fears associated with historically stigmatized foods and ingredients, including LNCS. Ensure any information shared is based on credible sources (ideally more than one).
  4. Understand that LNCS are not a “magic bullet” for health, nor are they required in a healthy eating pattern. Still, the evidence does not support their demonization. LNCS can offer calorie reductions from added sugars without having to sacrifice sweetness or enjoyment.

Being thoughtful about the language we attach to foods and ingredients will foster more productive public discourse, something all food conversations can use more of given today’s contentious communications landscape.