The Coca-Cola Company announced it is eliminating the sweetener, Stevia, from its Vitamin Water because consumers have complained about a bitter after taste. There is a lot more to the story than that.

A recent report in Drexel University’s EXEL magazine related how one of its professors of biology, Daniel Marenda, was helping his son, a sixth grader, with a science project involving fruit flies and artificial sweeteners. The fruit flies died unexpectedly after eating Truvia, a popular extract of Stevia, a South American plant.

In my book, A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, I pointed out that the whole-leaf or crude extracts of Stevia Rebaudiana, were once not permitted by the FDA for use as a food additive “because there were reports in the literature that raised concerns about the stevia such as its effect on blood sugar, reproduction, and the cardiovascular and renal systems.”

Stevia, on the other hand, has been reputed for ages to have antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory,and antimicrobial benefits.

In 1999, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the World Health Organization (JECFA) and the Scientific Committee on Food of the European Union (EU) reviewed the stevia extract, stevioside, and determined “on the basis of scientific data, it was not acceptable as a sweetener” However, stevioside was allowed in food for sweetening purposes in a number of countries. In Japan, for example, stevioside has been used alone or in combination with other sweeteners since the 1970s in beverages, tabletop sweeteners, chewing gums, pickles, dried sea foods, flavorings, and confectioneries.

Stevia was used in the United States in the 1980s but then was banned in 1991. It however, was allowed by the FDA as a dietary supplement but not as a food additive. Following political pressure from Coca-Cola and Pepsi, The FDA gave a long-awaited approval to two stevia-based sweeteners developed by theCoke and Cargill. 

In 2011, the European Commission authorized the use of high purity of stevia.  In 2013, the FDA said it had no objection to the purified stevia extracts developed by Coke and Cargill to be used as a sweetener. The FDA even allowed it to be labeled as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).

There is, of course, a history of a great deal of lobbying behind the scenes from the sugar industry and other competitive sweetener producers. Could that be responsible for the ups and downs of the additive?

Back to what killed the fruit flies? Drexel University biologists, Marenda and Sean O’Donnell, associate department head of Environmental Science, wanted to know. They found in the lab the  stevia sweetener was 89 percent erythritol, a non-nutritive sugar on the market for more than a decade. Erythritol is produced through fermentation of glucose by a microorganism, Trichosporonides megachiliensis. Erythritol naturally occurs in low levels in many fruits and in larger amounts in fermented foods such as soy sauce, cheese and wine.  Erythritol is useful usually only when combined with another sweetener. Sugar alcohols, such as erthritol, can cause diarrhea  and bloating in susceptible individuals.

The Drexel professors concluded that the stevia sweetener is harmless to humans even in large doses but certainly not to  fruit flies. In the report of their work in PLOS, an online scientific journal, Marenda and O’Donell concluded erythritol would be an excellent human-safe pesticide.

As for the stevia extract out of Vitamin Water–how silly is Vitamin Water? But that’s another story.


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