Popular sugar substitute is also a potent insecticide, researchers find

Don't worry -- this isn't the scary news it sounds like

Published June 5, 2014 6:44PM (EDT)


The artificial sweetener Truvia is deadly to fruit flies, a surprising new study in PLOS ONE finds, shortening their lifespans considerably compared to other sugar substitutes.

It's all OK, though, because humans are different from fruit flies -- erythritol, a sugar alcohol that's the main ingredient in Truvia, is harmless to the humans who dump it in their coffee. (The overall safety of artificial sweeteners, of course, is still up for debate.) Here's more from the Verge:

This information comes to us thanks to Simon Kashock-Marenda, a ninth-grader from Philadelphia who was actually in the sixth-grade at the time of the discovery. He realized that Truvia could kill fruit flies while looking into the effect of various sweeteners on insect health and longevity for a science fair experiment. His parents had recently cut back on white sugar, so he was curious about the health effects of substitutes.

But when Kaschock-Marenda realized that Truvia was actually killing his flies, he knew something was up. So, he told his father, Daniel Marenda, who also happens to be a biologist at Drexel University. The two are now co-authors of the study.

According to the experiment's results — it was recreated more rigorously in a Drexel lab once the sixth-grader reported the finding — erythritol is toxic to fruit flies in a dose-dependent manner, meaning that a higher dose is more effective. Truvia also appears to impair fly motor function shortly before they die, the researchers report. No other sweetener tested in the study had these effects, including another popular stevia brand called PureVia.

So, in the worst case scenario, we've learned something new about Truvia, and young Kashock-Marenda gets to be the big-time winner of his science fair. But it's also possible, the researchers say, that erythritol could be used as a safe and effective insecticide. "I feel like this is the simplest, most straightforward work I've ever done, but it's potentially the most important thing I've ever worked on," senior author Sean O'Donnell said in a statement.

"We are not going to see the planet sprayed with erythritol and the chances for widespread crop application are slim," O'Donnell admitted. "But on a small scale, in places where insects will come to a bait, consume it and die, this could be huge."

By Lindsay Abrams

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Fruit Flies Pesticides Stevia Truvia