Truvia, an artificial sweetener for drinks and food, has been found to be toxic to fruit flies.
Erythritol, the main ingredient in the sweetener, could be used as an insecticide on crops. This could provide a new option for use on fields.
"Some synthetic insecticides suffer drawbacks including high production costs, concern over environmental sustainability, harmful effects on human health, targeting non-intended insect species, and the evolution of resistance among insect populations," researchers wrote in the article announcing the study.
Erythritol is not poisonous to humans, and is found naturally in many fruits. Despite being sweet, the substance contains few calories. Several studies have demonstrated humans possess a significant tolerance for the sweetener. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the substance for human consumption in 2001.
Because the chemical is natural and biodegradable, using the substance on crops would be an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional pesticides. Fruit flies are highly attracted to the artificial sweetener, adding to its potential as a pesticide. Not even sugar was as tasty as Erythritol to the fruit flies in the experiment.
This discovery started as a middle school science project, when a sixth-grader asked his parents why they gave up eating white sugar. Simon Kaschock-Marenda asked his parents if he could study toxicity of various sweeteners, including sugar and Truvia. His parents, including Drexel University researchers Daniel Marenda, readily agreed.
When the science fair project showed all the flies given Truvia had died in six days, the pair decided to re-run the experiment, looking for errors. This time, the elder scientist took up the experiment under laboratory conditions. The father-son team also brought in an expert on insects, Sean O'Donnell, who teaches biology at the university.
"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," O'Donnell said.
Fruit flies in the Drexel experiment lived an average of just 5.8 days when fed Truvia, and suffered significant impairment to their motor skills before their deaths. This compared to average lifespans between 38.6 and 50.6 days for insects eating foods that were not laced with the sweetener.
Last year, 23 school children were killed in India after pesticides made their way onto school lunches. Using a human-safe pesticide like Erythritol could help prevents such tragedies in the future.
Erythritol toxicity in fruit flies and investigation of its potential as a pesticide was profiled in the online journal Plos One.