Are you adding a powerful pesticide to your morning coffee?

Posted by
June 26, 2014



A new study has concluded that a “novel, effective, and human safe approach for insect pest control” might be in the offing. And that should sound like good news.

But what might make it seem somewhat less so – even perhaps a bit disturbing – is the fact that a lot of us are already ingesting this supposedly ”safe” alternative  pesticide.  And not as a residue, either, but in the form of a no-cal sweetener – one we sprinkle on foods and beverages and can find already added to juice and other items by food manufacturers.

It’s Cargill’s Truvia®, a seemingly benign and healthy product described on its website as having “natural, great-tasting sweetness born from the leaves of the stevia plant.” But it’s not the relatively small amount of stevia found in Truvia that apparently possesses pest-control potential.  The thing that does is identified in the name of the study, which appears this month in the online publication PLOS ONE: “Erythritol, a Non-Nutritive Sugar Alcohol Sweetener and the Main Component of Truvia, Is a Palatable Ingested Insecticide.”

Followers of this blog might recall that last year, Truvia was the subject of a couple of lawsuits claiming that the erythritol it contained wasn’t the “simple, natural ingredient “found in fruits like grapes and pears,” as it was being described, but rather one “derived from corn starch in a patented process.” (At least one of those cases – a class-action suit – has reportedly since been settled, with some adjustments made to the label.)

Now comes news that researchers from Philadelphia’s Drexel University, engaged in what appear to have been some very meticulously conducted experiments, have found that feeding Truvia and erythritol to fruit flies shortened their lives considerably, as well as impeding their “motor skills.”

They determined this after comparing both the flies’ longevity and climbing ability with those of control groups whose diets consisted of various kinds of sweeteners, natural and synthetic,“nutritive” and “non-nutritive.” But the only one that really seemed to ‘zap’ the flies was the Truvia – and the more of it they got, the faster they succumbed.

Don’t blame stevia

A further comparison of Truvia results with those of another product, Pure Via, indicated that “stevia plant extract was not the toxic element in these sweeteners.” Although both contain stevia, Pure Via uses dextrose as its “bulk component,” while Truvia uses erythritol. This is especially interesting is light of the attempts by the Food and Drug Administration a few years back to keep stevia off the market by labeling it an “unsafe food additive,” even though it had been thoroughly tested for safety in Japan, and has been used for centuries without any adverse reactions ever being associated with it.

This particular study, however, was not intended to cast doubt on the safety of either erythritol or Truvia, as the FDA once did with stevia. In fact, it notes how a “large body of literature has shown that erythritol consumption by humans is very well tolerated and indeed, large amounts of both erythritol and Truvia are being consumed by humans every day throughout the world.”

The purpose instead seems to be reflected in the suggestion that it may possibly offer a solution to the “large worldwide need and demand for environmentally safe and effective insecticides.”And perhaps it will – although as the authors note in their conclusion, “Further study will be required to determine if erythritol is toxic to other insect species.”

What we would ask, however, is whether “further study” is also indicated to determine whether or not it may be toxic to humans in light of this new data, despite all that “literature” that says it isn’t.

The Truvia website claims the product is “safe for all individuals” — even those with irritable bowel syndrome — and that “nearly everyone will be able to use Truvia® natural sweetener in their diet with no problems,” except for perhaps “a few who are extremely sensitive.” But a casual Internet search reveals that consumers have reported suffering a variety of adverse reactions to Truvia, including gastrointestinal distress, migraine headaches, dizziness, rashes, extreme fatigue, mouth sores, and pains in the head, neck and shoulders, and that such symptoms disappeared shortly after they stopped using the sweetener.

Apart from simple allergies, might such individuals be responding to whatever it is about the erythritol in Truvia that singularly sent the fruit flies in that study into an early death spiral?  The researchers themselves acknowledge that their work “did not address the physiological or molecular mechanisms of erythritol toxicity.” Given what we now can deduce – that it seems to interfere with some vital survival mechanism for at least one living organism  — isn’t that something someone perhaps should be doing, along with indexing the instances of those adverse effects?

Maybe what Truvia is really meant to be is a swatter, rather than a sweetener.