Monk Fruit Extract vs. Stevia: Is There Any Real Difference?

You’re driving down the street, and you need gas.

You see a Shell station on the left and an Exxon station on the right. Unless you’re low on cash and only have a Shell (or Exxon) credit card, it doesn’t really matter which one you pull into. Gas is a commodity, and both stations sell essentially the same thing.

It’s easy to feel the same way about other products that seem like commodities.

For instance, when you sit down in a diner or restaurant and order coffee, you don’t normally think about what’s in the small packets of sugar substitute on the table (unless you’re Lydia Rodarte-Quayle from Breaking Bad, who always insists on stevia and discovers her mistake too late). When your coffee arrives, you open the packet and pour it into the cup, whether it’s Sweet’N Low, Equal, Stevia or Nectresse.

That can be a mistake.

Most sugar alternatives are synthetic, and they’re not the best substances to put into your body. That’s why many health- and weight-conscious people, particularly diabetics and those on keto diets, have switched from artificial sweeteners to the latest class of sugar substitutes: natural, non-nutritive sweeteners.

The two best-known are stevia and monk fruit extract. Each is a far better choice than sugar or traditional alternatives like aspartame and sucralose. And both stevia and monk fruit provide most of the same benefits.

That doesn’t mean they’re the same.

Here’s a full rundown of their similarities and differences. You’ll find that for most people, there are good reasons to choose monk fruit sweetener instead of stevia.

What Is Stevia?

The first natural sugar alternative to hit the market was stevia, found to be “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration in 2008. The sweetener is derived from the leaves of the stevia plant, known in the botanical world as Stevia rebaudiana and native to South American nations like Brazil and Paraguay. It’s a member of the aster (Asteracaea) family. 

The stevia plant was used for hundreds of years in South America for sweetening tea, as medicine, and as a “treat.” A Swiss botanist “discovered” the stevia right around the turn of the 20th century; later research revealed stevia’s incredible sweetness and its possible utility as a substitute for sugar.

Derivatives of the plant have been used to sweeten beverages in Japan since the 1970s, but Western nations took much longer to give their approval. Some players in the U.S. health food industry began promoting stevia as a supplement or food additive during the 1980s, but that was before the FDA was asked to study and approve the substance for general use. Now, most developed nations have given their thumbs up to stevia sweeteners.

There’s an important distinction to make between stevia leaf and stevia extract, before we dig more deeply.

The leaves and crude extracts of the stevia plant are banned for use in most nations, including the United States, because there hasn’t been enough research on them to declare them safe. The only stevia products that can be legally used in America as sweeteners are highly-purified stevia extracts known as steviosides. Rebaudioside A, often called Reb A or Rebiana in the commercial world, is the one most commonly used.

Steviosides, more accurately named steviol glycosides, are actually the reason why stevia is so sweet; they’re a form of glucose that’s 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar. Glycosides like Rebaudioside A are removed from stevia leaves by steeping the leaves in hot water, and then processing the liquid through filtration and centrifuging. (Some producers use substances like alcohol during the process.)

The final product is sold in liquid, powdered and granular form.

What Is Monk Fruit Sweetener?

In many ways, the story behind monk fruit is similar to the one we’ve just told.

Monk fruit is a small, green, melon-shaped fruit that’s a member of the gourd family. It grows on vines called siraitia grosvenorii, in small regions of China and in Southeast Asian nations like Thailand. Buddhist monks known as Luo Han used the fruit medicinally, to treat congestion and coughs, as far back as the 1200s. They dubbed it luo han guo (Luo Han fruit) for that reason.

Since monk fruit doesn’t grow throughout China, it was never widely used in Chinese medicine. It took centuries for most traditional healers to learn of it, and most still didn’t have access to it because the fruit goes rancid a few days after it’s been picked. (That’s also why, even today, you won’t find monk fruit sold in your local natural foods or grocery store.)

Like stevia, monk fruit was discovered by the Western world in the early 20th century, and its ability to contribute sweetness some 200 times greater than sucrose (regular sugar) was more fully understood in the latter half of the century. It was a bit later to the commercial sweetener party than stevia, however, as it was designated GRAS by the FDA two years after stevia extract.

Also like stevia, monk fruit’s extreme sweetness is due to the glycosides it contains. In the monk fruit, glycosides are attached to compounds known as mogrosides. The sweetest of all, mogroside V, is the most prevalent form of mogroside in the fruit. 

Monk fruit sweetener must be produced shortly after harvesting, because of the fruit’s short shelf life. It’s crushed to make juice, and the mogrosides are separated from the small amounts of fructose and glucose also contained in the fruit. The product is then crystallized into monk fruit extract, and eventually sold in liquid, crystal or powdered form. For obvious reasons, all of this work must be done in processing plants located close to monk fruit fields, so all of the sweetener that’s produced must be shipped worldwide from South Asia.

Monk Fruit and Stevia Sweeteners: Shared Advantages

These two natural sweeteners share some very important characteristics other than their extraordinarily sweet taste, and the fact that they’re both excellent alternatives to sugar.

Pure stevia and monk fruit sweeteners are both classified as non-nutritive products, meaning they provide no nutritional benefit. Each contains zero calories, zero carbs, zero sugar and no artificial ingredients. They’re both safe to consume, even by children and women who are pregnant or nursing. Both are good choices for those on keto since they contribute no carbohydrates to a diet, and for diabetics, since they each have glycemic indexes of zero and neither will raise blood sugar levels.

More specifically, preliminary studies (most of them on animals, because these natural sweeteners haven’t been on the market for very long) have shown stevia lowering blood glucose and insulin levels, as well as A1C levels. Meanwhile preliminary research has also shown that monk fruit extract is able to lower blood sugar levels, apparently thanks to mogrosides’ ability to stimulate the production of insulin in the body.

There’s another, important shared characteristic: both monk fruit extract and stevia provide additional health benefits. But when we look more closely at those benefits, we start to notice differences between the two sugar-free natural sweeteners.

Stevia vs. Monk Fruit: Health Benefits

As we’ve mentioned, only limited research has been done to date on these two non-nutritive sweeteners. The findings, though, are encouraging in several areas; monk fruit seems to have the edge in the early results.

Stevia

  • There have been findings showing that stevia leaf powder may be able to help lower cholesterol. One study reported that among participants, total and “bad” cholesterol levels, as well as triglyceride levels, declined after taking stevia for a month, while “good” cholesterol levels increased.
  • Not all researchers agree, but it’s becoming apparent that stevia seems to have the ability to help lower blood pressure
  • Analysis of stevia has shown that leaf extracts contain substances with antioxidant properties, which are helpful in preventing cellular damage caused by free radicals in the body.

Monk Fruit

  • Let’s stick with the subject of antioxidants for a moment. Stevia may have antioxidant properties, but research shows that the mogrosides in monk fruit extract have much more powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. That strength means even better prevention of oxidative stress, the issue that contributes to a host of medical issues ranging from cardiovascular disease and asthma, to diabetes and cancer.
  • While we’re discussing cancer, early research results imply that mogrosides may also have significant abilities to inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
  • Stevia isn’t the only natural sweetener which appears to have a beneficial impact on cholesterol. Monk fruit extract seems to increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels as well.

Stevia vs. Monk Fruit: Potential Side Effects and Other Concerns

Side Effects

Both sweeteners are definitely safe to use. However, there are issues that some users may experience, and the evidence once again comes down on the side of monk fruit extract.

One of the most important concerns involves digestive system problems. They’re commonly associated with alternative sweeteners, notably sugar alcohols like sorbitol and maltilol and the low-calorie sweetener saccharin (Sweet’N Low). All are known to cause gastrointestinal issues like bloating, diarrhea and pain.

Stevia doesn’t cause the same level of problems, but some people do experience bloating and nausea after consuming the sweetener regularly. That may be due to the fact that stevia seems to alter the gut biome in the same way that saccharin does. By contrast, monk fruit sweeteners do not cause the same types of stomach distress.

Another potential issue involves hormones. Steviol glycosides are similar to steroids in their structure. For that reason, they may act as endocrine disruptors, affecting both the male and female reproductive system while potentially causing metabolism, thyroid and obesity issues as well. Monk fruit extract has a different chemical structure and is not believed to cause these issues.

It’s important to emphasize that most of these problems don’t affect the vast majority of people who use natural no-calorie sweeteners. They’re most likely to occur among those who consume them in large quantities on a regular basis.

Other Concerns

Stevia and monk fruit extract each have a noticeable aftertaste, but monk fruit sweeteners have a milder residual flavor which most people find less objectionable than the somewhat-bitter aftertaste of stevia.

There is a remote possibility that each sweetener may cause allergic reactions. Those who are allergic to fruits in the gourd family, like melons and cucumber, should avoid monk fruit just to be safe. The same goes for those who are allergic to ragweed, sunflowers or other plants in the aster family, who may want to avoid stevia. To be completely fair, these allergies to natural sweeteners are extremely rare.

Monk fruit sweetener is slightly more expensive to purchase than stevia. That fact requires some context, though. For one thing, they’re both much pricier than calorie-free artificial sweeteners or sugar. And since their recommended serving sizes are so tiny (due to high sweetness levels), the price difference per serving is virtually negligible.

Stevia is easier to find than monk fruit extract right now, although that playing field is starting to even out. Commonly-seen brands of stevia include Truvia, Stevia in the Raw and SweetLeaf Stevia; Nectresse, Monk Fruit in the Raw and Lankato Monk Fruit Sweetener are currently the predominant monk fruit brands. No matter which sweetener – and which brand – you’ve chosen, though, there’s one key issue to be aware of. We’ll look at that shortly.

Neither type of natural sweetener has an advantage in the kitchen. Each one works well in sauces, marinades and dressings, as long as you’re careful with amounts and adjust for their extreme sweetness. Both are also heat stable, so they can be used for cooking or baking as well. However, their textures and sweetness make them so different than sugar that it’s quite difficult to substitute either one into a recipe, without a lot of trial and error. Stevia baking blends are available, but be sure to read our next section (about additives) before using them.

Monk Fruit and Stevia: Additives

You’ve certainly gotten the idea by now that only a tiny amount of stevia or monk fruit sweetener is needed to equal the sweetness of a teaspoon of sugar. That’s not a problem if you’re scooping them out of containers (with tiny spoons, of course) or dispensing them from a bottle of liquid.

But what about those ubiquitous sweetener packets on restaurant tables around the world?

Obviously, companies can’t manufacture and sell normal-sized “sugar packets” with just a few flecks of stevia or monk fruit sweetener. They deal with that problem by filling the rest of the packets with additives – and many producers use the same additives in their bulk packaging as well.

Here’s where they run into a problem. What can you add to a packet of stevia or monk fruit without altering the sweetener’s desirable characteristics?

Unfortunately, the answer is “nothing.” Since these two products are so unique, there are no alternatives that can “bulk them up” without causing issues.

Some companies add the sugar alcohol erythritol, which helps to cover aftertastes but also adds calories. Others add a different sugar alcohol, xylitol, which can cause stomach problems. Some add molasses, sugars (like dextrose or glucose) or both; needless to say, added sugar pretty much defeats the purpose of using a sugar substitute. Others add fillers like maltodextrin, which have high glycemic indexes and cause major issues for diabetics.

The natural characteristics of stevia and monk fruit sweetener make the problem inevitable, if you want to use natural sweeteners that come in packets. And since brand name products often contain the same additives no matter how they’re packaged, just buying stevia or monk fruit in bulk isn’t an answer, either.

Here’s the solution. Look for pure monk fruit extract or pure stevia extract, and use tiny measuring spoons to add it to your beverages or food. Stevia brands to look for include NuNaturals and Now Foods Organic Stevia Powder; for monk fruit, look for brands like Purisure or Pure Monk Sweet. They’re not only all natural – they’re pure stevia or monk fruit extract, respectively. Most aren’t stocked in your local store, though, so you may have to shop for them on Amazon.

Which Is Better for Weight Loss, Stevia or Monk Fruit?

Quite honestly, the jury’s still out on whether any non-nutritive sweetener actually helps you lose weight, and the studies on this subject don’t differentiate between stevia and monk fruit sweetener. Some say there’s not enough evidence yet to support weight loss claims, while others say that low-cal or no-calorie sweetener users are actually more likely to gain weight.

How can that be? Experts aren’t sure, but many believe that people end up eating other high-calorie foods to get the energy and calories they aren’t getting from sugar. 

Their best advice is also the common sense approach to sweeteners. Once you choose the one you think is best for your needs, use it in conjunction with a smart eating plan and exercise. Monk fruit sweetener and stevia aren’t a golden ticket to weight loss; they’re just one of the many factors that can help.

Written by Liz Moore

4 min read

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