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Sixth-Grader's Science Fair Project Reveals Truvia Sweetener Is an Insecticide

Andrew Roberts 5 Nov 2018

Truvia is one of the many sweeteners and sugar alternatives on the market that are considered the healthier substitute for many.

But there are still a lot of questions and mystery around sweeteners, particularly the artificial types. Truvia is supposed to be different, but a school science project has proven this wrong...

A Simple School Project

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As this 2014 report from Drexel University lays out, a study that started as a sixth-grade science project has found that Truvia is an effective insecticide.

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...

The flies consumed erythritol when sugar was available and even seemed to prefer it. No other sweeteners tested had these toxic effects.

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Don't Worry

Even though the thought of digesting an insecticide is troubling, this shouldn't keep you up at night. Erythritol is natural and tested in humans at "high doses" according to Drexel, with no ill effects reported.

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Government Approval

It even has the approval of governments around the world, the U.S. Food And Drug Administration labeling it a good safe additive in 2001, with other nations following suit around the globe.

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A New Use?

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The researchers at Drexel and others involved with the discovery are now looking to patent the Erythritol for use as an 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"

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But What About The School Project?

Where it all started is likely the most interesting aspect of this story. The Drexel team claims that the research into the sweetener wouldn't have started without the work of Simon D. Kaschock-Marenda and his sixth-grade science project:

Three years ago, Kaschock-Marenda questioned why both of his parents had stopped eating white sugar when trying to eat healthier.

“He asked if he could test the effects of different sugars and sugar substitutes on fly health and longevity for his science fair, and I said, ‘Sure!” recalled Daniel Marenda, PhD, Simon’s father and an assistant professor of biology in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences

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A Peculiar Discovery

Kaschock-Marenda and his father went to the supermarket to get supplies for the experiment, picking up all types of sugar and sugar substitutes. The lab at Drexel supplies the "baby flies" and tools to raise the flies with each of the different sweeteners, all in prep for the science fair. Then they made a strange discovery:

“After six days of testing these flies in our house, he came back to me and said, ‘Dad, all the flies in the Truvia® vials are dead...’” Marenda said. “To which I responded, ‘OK...we must have screwed up somehow. Let’s repeat the experiment!’”

Under more rigorous testing conditions in the lab, they replicated their result and knew they were onto something – and could use a hand. “I only use insects to study the brain, so I needed someone who knew something about insects..."

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This was when Sean O’Donnell, Ph.D. at Drexel got his hands on the study and some more studying led to some confirmation:

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 before their deaths.

“Indeed what we found is that the main component of Truvia, the sugar erythritol, appears to have pretty potent insecticidal activity in our flies,”

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The Future

While the future isn't clear for the use of the sugar substitute as an insecticide, the researchers at Drexel are hopeful. Its use past fruit flies isn't known at this point, but it should be special:

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

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