Food trends come and go, but one in particular has stood the test of time: The search to satiate our sweet tooth. While sweet foods and drinks will likely always be popular, reducing sugar intake is a top public health priority. And many consumers are receiving the message, with recent IFIC consumer research showing that nearly 75% of Americans say they are looking to limit or avoid sugar in their diet. Although sugar replacements like low- and no-calorie sweeteners (LNCS) and sugar alcohols are increasingly used in products that are lower in added sugars, there is much debate over the expanding use of sugar alternatives.
To shed light on these issues, we conducted a survey of 1,000 Americans to gauge their perceptions of the healthfulness, safety, risks, and benefits of consuming sugar, LNCS, and sugar alcohols. This survey builds on IFIC’s 2021 Sweeteners Survey, deepening our insights and understanding of how and why consumers make certain dietary decisions, including whether or not to consume or avoid certain types of sweeteners.
- Nearly three in ten Americans regularly consume LNCS, while a similar percentage report never consuming LNCS.
- Among those who typically consume LNCS, trying to limit or avoid sugar is the top reason why they do so.
- Among those who rarely or never consume LNCS, not liking the taste is the top reason for avoiding them.
- More than half agree that consuming LNCS can benefit the health of some individuals.
- The top two ways people form an opinion about the safety of consuming LNCS are doing their own research and talking to health professionals.
- The ingredients list and the Nutrition Facts label on food packaging are the top two information sources that people would use to determine if a packaged food or beverage contains LNCS.
Findings in Depth
Americans are evenly divided over their intentional consumption of low- and no-calorie sweeteners (LNCS). Nearly three in ten (28%) of survey-takers reported regularly consuming LNCS, while a similar percentage (29%) said they never consume them. Higher-income adults, those under 45 years of age, and individuals with a college degree were less likely to report never intentionally consuming LNCS.
Among those who typically consume LNCS, one in three reports doing so at least once a day, and nearly one in five reports consuming LNCS multiple times a day. Reported LNCS consumption frequency was similar regardless of source—whether from a tabletop sweetener packet or a packaged food or beverage.
IFIC’s annual Food and Health Survey has repeatedly found high interest among consumers to limit the amount of sugar they consume. In this current survey, trying to limit or avoid sugar was the top reason (cited by 48% of survey-takers) for consuming LNCS. Women and those over 65 years of age (compared with those under 45) were more likely to cite limiting sugar intake as their reason for consuming LNCS.
Among those who rarely or never consume LNCS, the top reason cited for doing so was not liking the taste. One-quarter (26%) of LNCS avoiders said they would be more interested in consuming these sugar alternatives if they tasted better.
LNCS consumers would rather consume sweeteners referred to as “natural” than those referred to as “artificial.” LNCS are often described collectively by a variety of terms, including artificial sweeteners. But each type of LNCS is unique. Some types, like stevia and monk fruit sweeteners, are derived from plants and thus are sometimes described as “natural.” Others, like aspartame and sucralose, are considered man-made and thus are often described as “artificial.” Among LNCS consumers, LNCS that are referred to as “natural” are sought out more frequently than those referred to as “artificial” (44%, compared with 21%). Men and those over age 65 are more likely to seek out “natural” sweeteners. Those more likely to report seeking out “artificial” sweeteners are men, those under age 45 (compared with ages 65+), and those with a college degree.
People prefer to consume foods and beverages with caloric sweeteners over those containing LNCS and sugar alcohols. When presented with a list of 15 commonly used sweeteners, survey-takers reported that they would be most likely to consume foods and beverages that contain honey, brown sugar, and sucrose (table sugar). These preferred sweeteners—all three are types of caloric sweeteners (i.e. sugars)—were the same rank order as the top three found in IFIC’s 2021 Sweeteners Survey.
Some types of sweeteners are perceived as safer and healthier to consume than others. When presented with a list of 15 types of non-sugar sweeteners, stevia and monk fruit sweeteners were perceived as the safest to consume. Many survey participants were unsure about the safety of consuming LNCS (with 21% not sure about stevia and 41% not sure about acesulfame potassium), but more reported being unsure about the safety of consuming sugar alcohols (with 34% not sure about glycerin and 43% not sure about mannitol) and allulose (40%). Those with incomes above $80,000 a year, those under the age of 45, and individuals with a college degree were significantly more likely to believe that all types of LNCS are “completely safe” to consume.
Similar results were found when survey-takers were asked about the perceived healthfulness of the same 15 non-sugar sweeteners. Stevia and monk fruit sweeteners were perceived as the healthiest sweeteners to consume. Many survey participants were unsure about the healthfulness of consuming LNCS (with 19% not sure about stevia and 38% not sure about acesulfame potassium), but more reported uncertainty about the healthfulness of consuming sugar alcohols (with 34% not sure about glycerin and 40% not sure about maltitol) and allulose (39%). Those with incomes above $80,000 a year, those under the age of 45, and individuals with a college degree were significantly more likely to believe that all types of LNCS are “completely healthy” to consume.
The majority of survey-takers believe that consuming LNCS can provide health benefits. More than half (54%) of survey-takers agreed, and 17% disagreed, with the following statement: “I believe that consuming low- and no-calorie sweeteners can benefit the health of some individuals.” A full one-quarter (25%) strongly agreed, while 8% strongly disagreed. But not all survey participants held strong beliefs about this statement. Nearly one-quarter (24%) neither agreed nor disagreed, and 4% were unsure if consuming LNCS can benefit some people’s health.
People rely on their own research to inform their opinion about LNCS safety. People look to a variety of information sources to shape their opinion about food and nutrition, including the safety of consuming LNCS. The most popular approach to informing an opinion about LNCS safety cited by survey-takers is doing their own research (37%). One-quarter of survey-takers rely on talking to a health professional, and slightly more than one in ten (11%) didn’t have an opinion about the safety of consuming LNCS.
Shoppers rely on ingredient lists and Nutrition Facts labels to determine LNCS presence. When determining whether a food or beverage contains LNCS, consumers reported seeking that information more often from the back and side of the package than from the front. The ingredient list (41%) and the Nutrition Facts label (35%) were the top two places shoppers look, followed by phrases (24%) and specific words (23%) found on the front of the package.
“Healthy” and “safe” are not synonymous terms to consumers. While almost one-quarter (23%) of survey participants said that “healthy” and “safe” have the same meaning, nearly four in ten (38%) define “healthy” and “safe” differently. However, when looking closer at responses to the three other paired statements about the potential relationship between “healthy/unhealthy” and “safe/unsafe,” consumer interpretations become clearer. For example, nearly one-third (32%) of survey-takers agreed that if a food, beverage, or ingredient is “healthy,” it is “safe” to consume, while fewer (24%) agreed that if something is “safe” it is “healthy.”
Survey results were derived from online interviews of 1,000 adults conducted from April 10th–12th, 2023, by Lincoln Park Strategies. They were weighted to ensure proportional representation of the population, with a margin of error of ±3.1 points at the 95% confidence level.