Researchers have just discovered that erythritol, the main component of the popular sweetener Truvia®, kills insects.

The study, published in the latest PLoS ONE, suggests that the popular sugar substitute could be an effective and human-safe insecticide. No other known sweeteners currently on the market exhibit these toxic effects on insects, according to the authors.

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Scientists are always on the lookout for potent bug killers that won't harm people, so it was surprising that the common sweetener does the deadly job so well.

"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, a Drexel University professor of biology and biodiversity, was quoted as saying in a press release.

Another researcher who worked on the project was ninth grader Simon D. Kaschock-Marenda. Three years ago, he 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, Simon's father who is also a co-author of the study.

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The father and son duo went to a local supermarket and bought every type of sugar and sugar substitute that they could. They raised "baby" flies (supplied by Marenda's lab) on the various compounds to see what would happen.

"After six days of testing these flies in our house, he (Simon) 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!'"

They did, and determined that 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.

"Indeed what we found is that the main component of Truvia®, the sugar erythritol, appears to have pretty potent insecticidal activity in our flies," Marenda said.

Erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol that is present in small amounts in many fruits. It has been tested in humans at high doses and these studies have concluded that it's safe for humans to consume. As a result, it has been designated as a generally recognized safe food additive by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 2001 and is also approved as a food additive in many other countries.

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The scientists determined that stevia plant extract, which is also in Truvia®, had no ill effect on the flies. Only erythritol really did a number on them.

"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."

The researchers next hope to find out if the sweetener kills other insect pests, such as termites, cockroaches, bed bugs and ants.

Photo: Flies that died after consuming food that contained the sweetener erythritol. Credit: Baudier et al., Drexel University