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Monk Fruit Benefits: Much More Than Just A Zero-Carb Keto Sweetener
This article has been written by experts and fact-checked by experts, including licensed nutritionists, dietitians or medical professionals. The information in the article is based on scientific studies and research.
It is designed to be honest, unbiased and objective, and opinions from both sides of an argument are presented wherever there is disagreement.
The scientific references in this article (marked by 1, 2, 3, etc.) are clickable links to peer-reviewed research material on the subject being discussed.
Most people know that you can’t consume sugar on the keto diet. You can’t even eat the many packaged and processed foods which contain added sugar. Dieters have a choice of sugar substitutes, of course, but there’s no general agreement on the best product to use in place of ordinary table sugar.
If you’re familiar with monk fruit sweetener (an enormous number of people still aren’t), you probably know it as a keto-friendly sugar alternative which doesn’t add calories or carbs to your diet.
And if you’re already on the ketogenic diet, that benefit may be the only one you need to know. It makes perfect sense to ditch the somewhat-problematic sugar substitutes you’re currently using, and switch to monk fruit extract instead.
“Zero calories and zero carbs,” however, should only be the headline in any story about monk fruit sweeteners and what they bring to the table. After all, there are artificial sweeteners that seemingly provide the same benefits.
What makes monk fruit so unique?
All of its other health and wellness benefits, which help the body battle everything from diabetes to heart disease.
What is this miraculous sweetener, and where does it come from? Glad you asked.
What Is Monk Fruit?
We can just about guarantee that you’ve never seen a monk fruit. They’re not sold at grocery stores, farmers’ markets or natural foods outlets. In fact, even those who have easy access to this fruit have to use it immediately, because it ferments and goes bad within days after it’s been picked.
A monk fruit, or luo han guo as it’s known in its native China, is a member of the gourd family and looks like a small melon. Buddhist monks in the mountains around Guilin began using it nearly 1000 years ago to treat coughs and congestion, and it was eventually integrated into the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. But its existence wasn’t even known in the West until the mid-20th century – and monk fruit’s value as a sweetener wasn’t realized for decades after that.
Today, the Siraitia grosvenorii vines that produce monk fruit are grown in several regions of Southeast Asia, primarily southern China and Thailand. Due to its very short shelf life, though, it has to be processed in nearby plants before monk fruit extract can be exported for use around the world.
Why is Monk Fruit Sweet?
In a word, mogrosides. They’re simple sugar compounds, or glycosides, which occur naturally in only a few plants – notably, Siraitia grosvenorii. Monk fruit is loaded with mogrosides, particularly one called mogroside V which is 250 times sweeter than table sugar. Needless to say, a very small amount is all that’s needed to sweeten any food or beverage.
Monk fruit extract, the substance used today as a sweetener, is produced by a two-step process. First, the fruit’s juice is extracted; then just the mogrosides are extracted from the juice. What’s left is a natural sweetener that’s far superior to sugar, artificial sweeteners or the sugar alcohols often used in “sugar-free” or “diet” products.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified monk fruit extract as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) in 2010, which is the government’s way of giving a food product the green light.
But “generally recognized as safe” doesn’t begin to explain the reasons why this sweetener is such an impressive sugar alternative. It also doesn’t address the many health benefits of monk fruit.
Here’s everything you need to know.
Monk Fruit Sweetener and Weight Loss
We all learn, from an early age, that too much sugar isn’t good for us. Often, that’s as far as the health messaging goes.
Sucrose, which is what we call ordinary sugar, can be problematic for weight management because it’s nothing more than refined, simple carbohydrates. America’s epidemic of obesity has been largely blamed on refined carbs, which are bad for your health for a number of reasons.
- Refined carbs have no nutritional value – all of the vitamins, minerals and fiber have been removed.
- Refined carbs have a very high glycemic index, meaning they raise blood sugar almost as much as pure glucose.
- Refined carbs are digested quickly, which means blood sugar and insulin levels spike almost immediately after the carbs are ingested. That’s bad in general, but it’s even worse for diabetics.
- Refined carbs, particularly added sugar, increase the danger of overeating by “turning off” the brain’s appetite control mechanisms.
- A diet high in refined carbs like sugar has been linked to high blood pressure and chronic inflammation; along with obesity and diabetes, those increase the risk of developing heart disease.
Monk fruit extract, by contrast, isn’t sugar. It isn’t pure carbs. In fact, it contains no carbohydrates at all. And it has a glycemic index of zero, meaning it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. The body doesn’t even absorb calories from monk fruit sweetener, because it passes right through the gastrointestinal tract without being digested.
The weight loss benefits are obvious. Monk fruit contains no carbs and no calories, compared to 16 calories and four net carbs in every teaspoon of sugar. Not surprisingly, research shows that zero- or low-calorie sweeteners like monk fruit extract help people lose weight when combined with sensible eating and exercise programs.
And monk fruit sweetener’s benefits are even more impressive for those on low-carb eating plans like the keto diet.
Monk Fruit Sweetener and Keto
Low-carb diets are based on a simple and scientifically proven premise: if you drastically limit the amount of carbohydrates you consume each day, you’ll lose a substantial amount of weight. It’s not really that simple, though. In reality, it’s a daisy-chain of events like carb intake and weight loss.
Here’s how it works.
- The body uses glucose as “fuel,” and it creates glucose by burning the carbs we eat. But what happens when we don’t consume enough carbs for glucose production?
- The body enters a metabolic state called ketosis. In ketosis, the liver produces molecules called ketones, and they’re a more-than-acceptable substitute for glucose as an energy source. The body and brain function just fine when the body is in ketosis.
- There’s one more important element in the chain: in order to produce ketones, the body burns stored body fat – and burning stored fat is crucial for fast weight loss.
For all of this to work, however, carb consumption has to be kept low. On a strict keto diet, the daily limit is 20-25 grams of net carbs per day. That’s not an easy goal to achieve when every teaspoon of sugar (or its equivalent in “added sugar” in food) contributes four grams of carbs toward that total of 20-25.
Think of it this way: the average American drinks nearly four cups of coffee a day. If they put two teaspoons of sugar in each cup, that’s more than 32 grams of carbs without even considering any other carbs they might eat during the day. That could easily “kick them out of ketosis” immediately, meaning no more ketone production – and no more weight loss.
Now, substitute monk fruit extract for the sugar. Instead of 32 carbs, that’s zero carbs (and zero calories as well). Ketosis continues, as does weight loss.
That’s why monk fruit sweetener (and a somewhat-similar alternative, stevia) have become so popular with keto dieters. It doesn’t endanger their diet. And it’s why many keto-friendly products, like Super Coffee ready-to-drink beverages, use monk fruit as a sweetener.
That leads to one question. Why use monk fruit instead of alternative sweeteners like sugar alcohols or stevia, or sugar substitutes like Sweet ‘N Low (saccharin), NutraSweet (aspartame) or Splenda (sucralose)?
It’s because of the additional health and wellness benefits that monk fruit extract brings to the dance.
Health Benefits of Monk Fruit
You may remember the Buddhist monks we mentioned earlier, who used monk fruit to treat coughs and congestion. There was a scientific reason for the fruit’s effectiveness, although the monks certainly didn’t know it at the time.
Monk fruit has been found to have strong antibacterial properties, and of course, bacteria are responsible for many upper respiratory infections. Research has discovered a bioactive compound called siraitiflavandiol in monk fruit, and it’s been shown to be effective in fighting several strains of bacteria. That compound has also been effective against the most common cause of fungal infections in humans, Candida albicans.
Another reason monk fruit can treat colds and flu: it has anti-inflammatory properties as well. Sore throats, stuffy noses, coughs and other annoying symptoms are all by-products of inflammation, so it’s understandable that the fruit has been used for hundreds of years to treat them.
That’s not the only reason anti-inflammatory properties are important. A number of chronic health issues like diabetes, arthritis, asthma, IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) and endometriosis are all diseases linked to inflammation – making monk fruit a potentially powerful weapon against them.
And the list keeps growing. The mogrosides in monk fruit have been shown to have strong antioxidant properties. If you’ve ever read about the health benefits of foods like blueberries, artichokes, kale and goji berries, you know how important that is. Antioxidant effects help to fight the oxidative stress caused by free radicals in the body – and those free radicals can cause serious damage to the body’s cells over time, leading to diseases like heart disease and cancer.
Did someone say cancer? There’s also research showing that monk fruit extract may have anticancer benefits beyond its antioxidant properties. One study found that it appeared to suppress the spread of throat and colorectal cancer, and research continues into monk fruit’s impact on other types of cancer.
Is Monk Fruit Safe?
Absolutely. Unlike other types of sweeteners, monk fruit extract has no known side effects. It’s even safe for children, pregnant women and nursing mothers. A few people who suffer allergic reactions when they eat other fruits in the gourd family (cucumbers, squash, melons and pumpkin) may experience similar reactions to monk fruit, but that’s quite rare.
Contrast that to the stomach distress that sugar alcohols (except erythritol and xylitol) can cause, or the potential hazards of artificial non-nutritive (zero-calorie) sweeteners, and monk fruit sweetener is clearly a better choice.
There are only two drawbacks to using monk fruit sweetener.
First, it’s slightly more expensive than other sugar alternatives. That’s understandable if you remember our description of how monk fruit extract is produced. The fruit has to be handled carefully and the juice has to be extracted almost immediately, or else it will go bad. And for the same reason, all production has to be done in facilities built very close to the Asian farms where the plants are grown, before being shipped around the world. That all contributes to the higher price.
Second, monk fruit has a very slight aftertaste. It’s not as strong as the aftertaste produced by stevia, the other commonly-used novel sweetener, but some people find it takes a little time to get used to.
Monk Fruit vs. Stevia
Since we’ve mentioned stevia, we should also briefly compare it against monk fruit extract.
The two new entrants in the natural sweetener market come from very different sources; monk fruit, of course, comes from an Asian gourd, while stevia comes from the leaves of a South American plant. They each have many of the same benefits: no calories, no carbs, a glycemic index of zero, no effect on blood sugar, and health benefits far beyond those of other sweeteners.
When those benefits are compared, though, monk fruit extract comes out the narrow victor. Its effects on blood sugar are slightly more impressive, and its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties appear to be stronger. Both are good for your health, but monk fruit is slightly better (and it has less of an aftertaste, too).
How to Use Monk Fruit Sweeteners
Monk fruit extract can be used in just about any way you currently use sugar or sugar substitutes. It can be used to sweeten beverages and foods, it can be used in cooking and baking – it’s versatile and of course, very sweet.
And that causes a “logistical” problem of sorts. Since only a tiny amount of monk fruit extract is needed to do the work of an entire teaspoon of sugar, how do you measure it? And an even bigger problem: how do you put it into those convenient packets used in restaurants and break rooms?
To use the old punch line: very carefully. You have to use tiny measuring spoons to prevent your coffee or baked goods from becoming too sweet. That’s not a difficult adjustment to make; the bigger problem comes when producers try to make monk fruit convenient to use.
What they do is mix pure monk fruit extract with other sweeteners to “bulk it up.” In other words, they sell “monk fruit sweetener” that can be used by the teaspoonful, or put into a restaurant packet. And the stuff they mix it with can defeat the purpose of using monk fruit in the first place.
Some companies blend it with erythritol, which isn’t a huge issue unless you have existing stomach problems that erythritol can make worse. Some mix monk fruit extract with a food additive called maltodextrin that’s bad for diabetics; some even combine monk fruit with molasses or sugar – which is exactly the stuff you’re trying to avoid when using monk fruit. And needless to say, the health benefits of monk fruit are reduced or eliminated when most of the sweetener is really something else.
Monk Fruit in the Raw and Lankato are two of those products which have had the monk fruit diluted by other sweeteners. A far better choice is to buy pure monk fruit extract (Pure Monk Sweet and Purisure are two good brands) and take a few minutes to learn how to measure it.
It’s worth the small extra effort.