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Sixth grader helps discover that Truvia is a potential insecticide

Erythritol is the major ingredient in the artificial sweetener Truvia™. In an article released by Drexel University on June 4, 2014, it was revealed that scientists at Rutgers University have discovered that Truvia results in early death and significant motor impairment of fruit flies. The announcement of the study was titled You can catch (and kill) more flies with this sweetener.

Truvia may have side effects like Equal and Splenda
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sean O’Donnell, PhD, a professor of biology and biodiversity, earth and environmental science in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, who was a senior author of the paper. O’Donnell had this to say regarding the experiment.

Erythritol, the main component of the sweetener Truvia®, was toxic to Drosophila melanogaster fruit flies in a dose-dependent manner in the Drexel team’s study, published in PLOS ONE. The flies consumed erythritol when sugar was available and even seemed to prefer it. No other sweeteners tested had these toxic effects.

The major ingredient in Truvia is erythritol, a sugar alcohol, that occurs in small amounts in some fruits. The other ingredient is stevia, and stevia had no impact on the life or motor functions of the fruit flies.

This discovery was started by a sixth grade science project by Simon Kaschock-Marenda, who is now in the ninth grade. Kaschock-Marenda is a co-author of the paper. Kaschock-Marenda was curious that his parents had switched from sugar to sweeteners. He asked his father, Dr. Daniel Marenda, who teaches biology at Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences if he could do the experiment as his science fair project. His father approved.

Kaschock-Marenda and Marenda bought several sugar substitutes and types of sugar and set up an experiment using fruit flies. After a few days, Kaschock-Marenda reported to his father that all of the fruit flies that had consumed Truvia were dead. Marenda insisted that his son repeat his experiment with Truvia in one of Drexel’s laboratories under controlled conditions. The fruit flies still died.

One of the conclusions from the report quoted this impact on the fruit flies from erythritol versus other sweeteners.

Flies raised on food containing Truvia® lived for only 5.8 days on average, compared to 38.6 to 50.6 days for flies raised on control and experimental foods without Truvia®. Flies raised on food containing Truvia® also showed noticeable motor impairments prior to their deaths.

The research team is seeking a patent on the use of erythritol as an insecticide. Their claim is based upon their research results. Erythritol is approved as a food additive and the FDA found no problems when erythritol was supplied to humans.

Based upon the original science fair project, erythritol caused motor impairment in the fruit flies. This might lead to a cautionary approach in applying it as an insecticide and initiate continued studies of the long-term effects of erythritol on the human nervous system. The comments by the research team did not include any mention of the impairment of the fruit flies motor functions. The FDA's prior approval of erythritol as a food additive appears to have superseded the initial discovery that erythritol had observable effect on the motor functions of the flies.

At this point, pure stevia appears to be the safest alternative sweetener. There are major concerns about the breakdown product of aspartame (Equal™) and sucralose (Splenda™). This report on Truvia does not lead to additional confidence as a food additive if you consider that fruit flies are widely used in neurological research. It may be better to use a small amount of sugar versus nearly any of the artificial sweeteners. If you can afford pure stevia, this seems to be another good choice, so far.

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