Top Three Takeaways About Low- and No-Calorie Sweetener Safety

Once upon a time in human evolution, finding sweet-tasting foods was considered critical for survival, as they were thought to signal a safe source of calories. By the early 1900s, people were interested in calorie-free sources of sweetness. American President Teddy Roosevelt famously enjoyed saccharin; the original no-calorie sweetener that was discovered in the 1870s. His use of saccharin sparked public conversations about low- and no-calorie sweeteners (LNCS) that continue to this day.

One of the most common questions that people have about LNCS such as aspartame, saccharin, stevia, and sucralose is: “Are they safe to consume?” A large body of scientific literature has addressed LNCS safety concerns, yet International Food Information Council (IFIC) consumer research has found that most people do not rely on scientific journals to inform their opinion of LNCS safety, instead preferring to do their own research.

Our February 2024 webinar, “Breaking Down the Basics and Biological Fate of Low- and No-Calorie Sweeteners,” focused on how our bodies handle LNCS, from consumption to excretion, and everything in between. Here are the top three takeaways.

1. The public has questions about low- and no-calorie sweetener safety.

LNCS are some of the most studied ingredients in the history of our food supply. Governments and independent researchers from around the world have investigated LNCS for more than 100 years. Today, LNCS are approved for use around the world.

While our scientific understanding of LNCS safety has evolved, many consumers continue to have questions. Part of this curiosity may stem from a lack of awareness about the LNCS approval process. IFIC 2023 consumer research on dietary sweeteners found that 20% of survey takers are unsure about who is responsible for approving the use of LNCS in the U.S. Eight percent believe no authority is responsible, while only 33% believe that LNCS approval is the responsibility of the U.S. government.

Part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) LNCS approval process is establishing an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) level. The ADI is the average daily intake over a lifetime that is expected to be safe for human consumption based on significant research. It is derived by first determining what is called the “no-observed-adverse-effect-level,” or NOAEL, which is the highest intake level found to have no adverse effects in lifetime studies in animal models. Then that number is typically divided by 100 to establish the ADI. Setting the ADI 100 times lower than the NOAEL helps ensure its safety for human consumption. The ADI is a conservative number that most people will never reach. For context, using the ADI established by the U.S. FDA, a person weighing 150 pounds (68 kg) would exceed the ADI (3,400 mg of aspartame) if consuming more than an average of 19 cans of diet soda or more than 85 individual packets of aspartame every day over the course of their lifetime.

Thinking critically about scientific conclusions is important. LNCS are not a “magic bullet” for health, nor are they required in a healthy eating pattern. Still, the scientific evidence does not support their denigration. LNCS are safe to consume within the ADI and are just one tool that offers calorie reduction from added sugars without having to sacrifice sweetness or enjoyment.

2. We need to instill public understanding of and confidence in the scientific process.

Trust in science is waning. This erosion of trust can shape world views, including what people choose to eat and what they choose to avoid. Mixed messages to the public stemming from the conflicting July 2023 aspartame evaluations by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives did little to improve public trust in scientific and regulatory review processes.

Decades of scientific inquiry have illuminated the different biological paths that each type of LNCS take between consumption and excretion from the human body. Because each of these pathways are unique, they must be acknowledged when evaluating LNCS research. As such, research conclusions about one type of LNCS cannot necessarily be applied to another. Still, lumping together multiple types of LNCS is common in observational studies, and by grouping them, numerous associations between consuming LNCS and various health outcomes have been stated. When critically evaluating reports regarding the safety of LNCS, consider asking: Are some associations plausible given what is known about the pathway that each LNCS takes from consumption to excretion? For example, aspartame will never appear in breast milk because it is rapidly metabolized to the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid and a small amount of methanol following ingestion.

Thoughtful, evidence-based messaging can help restore public trust in science, while reducing fears associated with historically safe – yet often stigmatized – foods and ingredients such as LNCS.

3. Our words hold weight.

The words we choose to use hold great weight, especially when applied to foods. LNCS are a prime example. While public sentiment about the safety and healthfulness of consuming LNCS is low, stevia and monk fruit are rated highest according to IFIC’s consumer research.

One reason for this may be two words that are often used to describe LNCS: “artificial” and “natural.” Whether an approved LNCS is considered “artificial” or “natural,” it has met the same high safety standards. One LNCS is not safer than another simply because of its “natural” status.

LNCS such as stevia and monk fruit sweeteners are sometimes referred to as “natural” while aspartame and sucralose are often called “artificial.” But all four have “natural” origins. Stevia and monk fruit sweeteners get their names from the plants that the sweeteners come from, but did you know that sucralose production starts with sucrose (aka sugar)? And that the two amino acids that are combined to form aspartame (aspartic acid and phenylalanine) are also present in non-fat milk and tomato juice?

This is a great reminder about the power of our words and the impact they can have. Terms like “artificial” are likely to be interpreted with a negative connotation, even if it was not intended. Conversely, terms like “natural” can lead people to believe that something is superior or potentially safer than something that is “artificial.” Being thoughtful about the language we attach to food and ingredients will foster more productive public discourse, something all food conversations can use more of given today’s communications landscape.