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Everything you need to know? OK, let’s see what we’ve got.
Oh – you want to know more than that about monk fruit sweetener?
We thought you might. Let’s get to it.
That’s a fair question, since we guarantee you’ve never seen a fresh monk fruit.
Monk fruit is a round sub-tropical melon, a member of the gourd family. It requires a very specific climate to grow so it’s only found in a few regions of South and Southeast Asia, primarily in northern Thailand and the mountains near Guilin, China.
It was apparently in those mountains that the fruit was first discovered by Buddhist monks nearly one thousand years ago. They regularly used it for medicinal purposes, mostly to treat congestion, coughs and sore throats. The monks were known as Luo Han, which is why monk fruit is called “luo han guo” in China. (“Guo” means fruit.) It’s also sometimes called “swingle fruit.”
Luo han guo was so rare that most traditional Chinese medicine practitioners didn’t know about it until centuries later, and it wasn’t until the 20th century that people in the West first heard about it. Interesting fact: the vines on which the melons grow are known by the biological name Siraitia grosvenorii; they were named after Gilbert Grosvesnor, the president of the National Geographic Society who approved funding for the first Western expedition to find monk fruit in China.
Monk fruit may have been “discovered” by Western civilization eighty years ago. But that doesn’t mean it quickly became a staple of our diets.
You can’t. Well, to be completely accurate, you could visit Southern Asia and search for one of the few plantations that grow it. But you won’t find monk fruit at the grocery store, produce store or even a fully-stocked Whole Foods.
The reason is simple: monk fruit has an extremely short shelf life. It turns brown and rancid within days of harvesting. And since it can only be grown in remote areas, there’s no “farm-to-table” option available, let alone supermarket shelves full of beautiful green monk fruit. The only place you might even find any type of luo han guo is in an Asian market, since the dry rind can be used to make traditional Chinese tea.
So very few people are able to eat monk fruit – but that doesn’t mean it’s simply a curiosity of nature.
It’s true that monk fruit has medicinal value, as those Chinese monks discovered centuries ago. Those benefits pale in comparison, though, to the secret that lies beneath the fruit’s skin: monk fruit is, by most estimates, about 200 times sweeter than ordinary table sugar.
That’s a very valuable characteristic, particularly now that 80% of Americans are trying to limit their sugar intake.
What makes this odd fruit so incredibly sweet? In a word, mogrosides.
Mogrosides are natural compounds that have glycosides – groups of glucose molecules – attached to them. And monk fruit is loaded with mogrosides. There are several types of mogroside; the one most prevalent in monk fruit, mogroside V, has been found to be 250 times sweeter than glucose (which most of us know as blood sugar).
When mogrosides enter the body, they pass right through the gastrointestinal tract until they reach the colon. There, the glucose molecules are removed to be used as fuel for the brain and body; everything else is excreted in blood or urine. That’s crucial, because the way the body processes mogrosides means they don’t add any calories to the diet.
Mogrosides have their own medicinal benefits, which we’ll discuss in a bit. What’s most fascinating about them, however, is how they’re used as a sweetening agent.
After monk fruit is harvested it’s crushed to obtain juice, which is filtered to remove all of the fruit’s other sugars (fructose and sucrose). What remains is then dehydrated, to create a pure monk fruit extract which contains only the super-sweet mogrosides.
That extract is what you’re getting when you purchase pure monk fruit sweetener, whether you’re buying it in bulk or in a product that uses it as a natural sweetener.
Is it really worth finding? Absolutely.
The growing demand for sugar alternatives has given rise to a never-ending search for candidates.
Natural alternatives to table sugar, like honey and molasses, have seemingly been around forever. Over the last hundred years or so, the most promising replacements for regular sugar were thought to be zero-calorie artificial sweeteners. So-called sugar alcohols have gained prominence as low-calorie sweeteners, and more recently, the focus has switched to natural sugar substitutes like stevia and monk fruit extract.
They each have advantages and disadvantages, but if you’ll pardon the pun, some are more “Equal” than others. It’s hard to understand the biggest advantages of monk fruit sweetener until you can compare it to the other possibilities – so in order to establish a baseline, let’s start this roundup with the old reliable.
American poet laureate Kanye West expressed it perfectly: “Why everything that's supposed to be bad make me feel so good?”
We’ve heard it since we were little: too much sugar is bad for you. First we heard about the dangers of tooth decay. Then it was obesity. Now that we’re adults, we hear virtually non-stop about the links between consuming too much sugar and heart disease, diabetes, liver disease and even cancer. (The use of high-fructose corn syrup in processed foods hasn’t helped either; that sweetener usually comes from genetically-modified corn, and contains just as much fructose and glucose as table sugar.)
All of that is a shame, needless to say, since sugar tastes so damn good. Whether you’re adding it to your coffee, using it to bake sweets or drinking an ice-cold bottle of soda that’s been sweetened with the real thing, sugar is simply yummy.
You can’t argue with the numbers, though. Each teaspoon of table sugar contains 16 calories, 4.2 grams of carbs, and no nutrients. And Americans consume an average of 60 pounds of sugar – in all of its forms – every year. (The numbers are even worse for kids, who consume an average of 65 pounds per year.) That’s more than three times the maximum amount of sugar that the American Heart Association recommends.
One way that some people try to cut down on their sugar intake is by using other sweet substances like honey in their tea or recipes. Is that a better choice?
Many people regularly eat naturally-sweet foods other than sugar, so it’s understandable that they’d think those foods would be perfect replacements. Unfortunately, they’re not.
To sum up, those watching their weight probably aren’t going to make much progress just by switching from sugar to a natural sugar alternative.
We’d guess that few readers can say (with a straight face) that they’ve never opened one of those brightly-colored packets sitting on the table, when a waiter delivered their coffee or tea. If you’ve honestly never done it, we guarantee your mother or grandmother has.
You swear that you’ve never done it, even once? In that case, we’ll just about guarantee that you’ve had a sugar-free soda containing the same synthetic sweeteners.
Sweet’N Low, Equal, Splenda – whatever the brand name, they’re definitely not sugar. They’re artificial products created to be low-carb and calorie-free, with a zero glycemic index. Only one of these sweeteners (sucralose, sold as Splenda) is made from sugar via a chemical process.
They’re also called “high-intensity sweeteners,” because they’ve been created to be hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than sugar. In short, a little goes a long way. All of these products are classified as non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS), which means they have no nutritional value.
There are currently four artificial sweeteners which have been declared GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe,” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They are saccharin (mostly sold under the brand name Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda), and acesulfame potassium (Sweet One). Another, cyclamate, has been banned in America for decades but is available in most other nations.
Low-carb, zero calories, non-GMO, extremely sweet. Sounds good so far, so there must be a catch, right?
Well, there’s a common belief that these sweeteners can cause cancer, but there’s no proof of that. Both the FDA and National Cancer Institute say there’s no evidence to support those claims, which originated some 50 years ago. But there are other health concerns.
For instance, studies have linked diet drinks containing artificial sweeteners to a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease. And there’s also growing evidence that regular consumption of these sweeteners can actually lead to weight gain.
One possible reason for this counterintuitive result: the brain may be tricked into expecting a sugar boost when artificial sweeteners are consumed. When it doesn’t arrive, the compensating impulse is to get sugar in some other way – by eating more food. Other experts believe that the weight increase comes because people think they can “get away” with eating higher-calorie food, since they’re drinking “diet” soda. In any event, the link between artificial sweeteners and weight gain is pretty clear.
And, of course, a large number of people don’t want any artificial ingredients in their diet.
Sugar alcohols aren’t alcohol (they don’t contain ethanol) and they’re not sugar (some are carbs extracted from fruits or vegetables, some are man-made). Their name is based on the facts that their chemical makeup is similar to both alcohol and sugar, and that they’re sweet.
Some contain calories, although not as many as table sugar. And although they’re sweet, sugar alcohols are not as sweet as table sugar. The two used most often are erythritol and xylitol, and they’re commonly used as additives to sweeten foods and beverages.
Erythritol (often sold under the brand name Swerve) is a product that’s usually extracted from grains, and contains no calories and no net carbs. It has a glycemic index of zero and doesn’t affect insulin or blood sugar levels, so it’s a popular choice for diabetic diets. However, it’s often sourced from corn and wheat, so it’s not the best choice for those on Keto or gluten-free diets.
Xylitol isn’t calorie-free, but it does have less than half the calories of sugar. It’s also safe for diabetics, with a GI of 7; in fact, research shows it may help stabilize blood glucose levels and even prevent the development of metabolic syndrome that leads to diabetes. One of its common uses is in toothpaste and chewing gum, because it helps prevent tooth decay. Be aware it may also be sourced from corn.
Erythritol and xylitol are the most “benign” sugar alcohols in another way: they normally don’t cause stomach problems. Others like sorbitol, maltilol, mannitol and isomalt, though, often cause digestive system issues like bloating, gas, diarrhea and pain, because they’re not fully digested or absorbed. Instead, their remnants slowly ferment in the large intestine.
That leaves one more category of sugar substitutes, and it’s the one you’ve been waiting for.
More of these sweeteners are still being evaluated by the government or coming to market. But two are already viable alternatives to sugar. They are stevia (extracted from the herb of the same name) and monk fruit extract (you already know where that one comes from).
The two have more similarities than differences. They’re each all-natural and several hundred times sweeter than sugar, they are each generally recognized as safe by the FDA, they each contain no calories and no carbs (ideal for Keto dieters), they each have a glycemic index of zero, they each provide at least some health benefits, and they’re both available in liquid, powder and granulated form. They’re both more expensive than sugar, too, although, the price differential isn’t enough to prevent them from making an impact on the market.
Bottom line: both stevia and monk fruit extract are excellent sugar substitutes for those who are watching calories and blood glucose levels.
There are reasons why monk fruit is a better choice for most people, though.
It’s been found that stevia, like saccharine and sucralose, can alter some peoples’ gut biomes and cause gastric side effects like diarrhea, bloating and stomach pain. Some studies indicate that stevia may help lower blood pressure, but that can cause issues for people who already take blood pressure medications. It’s also important to know that there are several different forms of stevia; the FDA has not approved the use of stevia leaves or crude stevia extracts.
By contrast, monk fruit sweetener does not cause stomach problems and no other side effects have been reported, even in children, pregnant and nursing women.
That was a pretty long comparison list, we know. It’s extremely useful, however, because it shows the many advantages that monk fruit sweetener has over all of the other sugar substitutes currently available.
Some sugar alcohols, and stevia, provide a level of health and wellness benefits. But monk fruit sweetener’s potential benefits are more impressive.
You’re now familiar with all of the reasons why monk fruit extract looks like the sugar substitute the world has long been searching for. There are practical issues, though, which make it crucial to choose monk fruit products carefully. (To be fair, stevia sweeteners have the same “practical” issues.)
Since monk fruit extract is so sweet, only a tiny amount is needed to provide the same effect as a much larger amount of sugar. For example, a teaspoon or packet of sugar is the perfect amount to add to a cup of coffee. If you were going to add monk fruit sweetener instead? You’d only need about 1/200th of a teaspoon or packet.
You can get around that problem if you purchase a container of the pure sweetener and add it by using the right tiny little measuring spoon (and you can buy those, if you’d like). The solution isn’t that simple when it comes to the convenient packets you find on restaurant counters and tables; the “right amount” of monk fruit extract would barely be noticeable in one of those packets.
Companies that make sweeteners have found an answer – but it’s one that can cause bigger problems. They put “filler” in the packets, to bulk them up and create a “full packet.” What do they use for filler?
Unfortunately, they sometimes use products that can negate the benefits of monk fruit extract, like maltodextrin (a thickening agent with a high glycemic index), molasses, or even – believe it or not – sugar. Naturally, those would be an unwelcome surprise for diabetics. Other companies use erythritol or stevia as additives; they aren’t necessarily harmful, but they’re not always desirable.
There’s one more category of additives that often show up in packaged monk fruit sweetener; they’re used to cover the slight but noticeable aftertaste of the extract. (Stevia has an aftertaste as well, it’s just different.) The most commonly ingredients used for this purpose are erythritol, maltodextrin and glycerin. The best advice: caveat emptor.
Here’s what’s in the brands of packaged monk fruit sweetener you’re likely to see at a store or restaurant.
You’ll probably have to buy those last two brands online. Most stores don’t carry them.
Oh, and when buying monk fruit sweetener you’ll see “sweetness indicators” on their labels. For example, V50 means 50% of the sweetener is mogroside V; V25 means the product is half as sweet, because it only contains 25% mogroside V.
There’s an easier alternative to memorizing brand names or studying package labels: sticking with pre-sweetened commercial products which use only pure monk fruit extract as a sweetener. Companies like Super Coffee add the proper amount of the extract to their products – and nothing else – to ensure that customers receive the full benefits of monk fruit.
You can, but you might not be happy with the results.
Monk fruit extract is so much sweeter than sugar that it’s difficult to figure out the right amount to use. It also doesn’t add any of the bulk or texture that sugar provides, a particularly thorny problem when baking. You can add the extract to sauces, dressings or marinades, but you may have trouble if you want to go any further.
If you plan to use monk fruit sweetener in recipes, be prepared for a lot of failed attempts before you figure it out – or better yet, use recipes specifically created for monk fruit use.
Published: March 25, 2021
Last Updated: August 3, 2021
3 min read
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