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Monk Fruit: The Superfood You Won’t See On Store Shelves
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.
You’ve undoubtedly heard about the many health benefits of so-called “superfoods” like berries, nuts, avocados, kefir, nuts and seeds.
You’ve probably heard the term “monk fruit,” too, even if you didn’t know that it’s also a superfood.
Monk fruit is very different from blueberries and flax seeds, superfruits that are easy to find at your local grocery store. In fact, you won’t even find monk fruit at Whole Foods or other natural food outlets.
If you’re dead set on buying this elusive fruit, you’ll probably have to visit a number of Asian markets before you finally discover some dried monk fruit hidden away on a shelf. (The dried fruit is used to make a traditional Chinese herbal tea.)
So why is this superfruit – that’s so difficult to find – such a big deal?
It’s simple. Monk fruit extract appears to be the healthiest, most effective sugar substitute ever developed.
You don’t need to find an actual monk fruit to enjoy its benefits. Monk fruit sweetener is available in bulk packaging and individual packets. It’s used to sweeten a growing number of commercially-produced foods and drinks.
And its popularity is growing rapidly.
Monk Fruit: Revered for Centuries
Monk fruit (sometimes called swingle fruit) is a member of the gourd family, native to the Guangxi province in Southern China and remote areas of Thailand. It’s known locally as luo han guo; “guo” means fruit and “luo han” refers to the group of Buddhist monks believed to have used the fruit for medicinal purposes as early as the 13th century. Today, the fruit is also called “lo han guo” or “lo han kuo.”
Those monks were among the few practitioners known to have harvested and used luo han guo to treat medical issues like coughs, sore throats and congestion. They also used it for its purported ability to enhance longevity, calling it “the immortals’ fruit.”
Monk fruit only grows naturally in a very small geographic region. So even though the fruit has been cultivated in the Guangxi region for centuries, it’s not described in most texts describing the practice of ancient Chinese medicine. But in the areas where it grows naturally, it has been revered for nearly 1,000 years. It only became better-known, and more popular throughout China, in recent centuries.
The fruit itself is green and round. It grows on vines which are now called siraitia grosvenorii, which is clearly not a Chinese name. The vines were named after the president of the National Geographic Society during the 1930s, Gilbert Grosvesnor, who approved funding for an expedition to Southeast Asia to “discover” the monk fruit.
Monk fruit was introduced more widely to the Western world a short time later. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century, however, that monk fruit extract’s properties as a healthy sweetener led to its large-scale cultivation and use.
Why Can’t You Buy A Monk Fruit?
There’s one big reason why you can’t find raw monk fruit, even at natural food supermarkets. The fresh green fruit ferments rapidly after it’s picked, turning brown and rancid, so understandably, the demand for – and usefulness of – fresh monk fruit is extremely limited. And it must be processed soon after it’s harvested, in order to maximize the quality and effectiveness of its extract.
As we’ve mentioned, dried monk fruit can be used to prepare traditional teas, which is why the dried fruit is available in some Asian markets. The true importance of this superfood, though, is the sweetener that commercial producers manufacture.
What Makes Monk Fruit So Sweet?
In a word, mogrosides. These natural compounds are the primary active component found in monk fruit; the glycosides (a form of glucose) attached to them make them several hundred times sweeter than sucrose, or ordinary table sugar. Mogroside V is the most prevalent form of the compound in monk fruit.
Here’s what’s so important about mogrosides, other than their natural sweetness. Once they’re ingested, they pass right through the gastrointestinal tract without being absorbed – and that means they don’t add calories to the diet. Mogrosides are only broken down in the colon, where the glucose is removed to be used as energy. So far, we only know this from studies done on animals, but researchers believe it works the same way in humans. (There’s a little fructose in monk fruit too, but it isn’t responsible for the fruit’s trademark sweetness.)
As a result, monk fruit extract is what’s called a “non-nutritive” sweetener, containing zero calories and zero carbs (and of course, no fat or protein either). The benefits should be obvious, but let’s discuss them a little more anyway.
Monk Fruit Extract, Diets and Weight
No peer-reviewed studies have yet been done to examine the specific effect of monk fruit sweeteners on humans. However, a number have looked at the impact of other non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) like aspartame (found in Equal and NutraSweet), stevia, and sucralose (Splenda).
The research that probably interests most people involves possible weight loss. The jury’s still out on that subject, though..
- Some studies report that use of the sweeteners is actually associated with increases in weight, waist size, obesity and related health issues.
- Some report that the evidence on non-nutritive sweeteners and weight is simply inconclusive.
- But the most convincing studies claim that the best type of research, randomized controlled trials, showed modest but significant reductions in weight (meaning several pounds or so), waist size and BMI (body mass index) in subjects who switched from sugar or artificial sweeteners containing calories, to NNS alternatives.
What are we to make from all of this seemingly-contradictory research?
Experts’ best guess – based on research, of course – is that those who switch to no-calorie or low-calories sweeteners are more likely to make other healthy changes in their diet and exercise patterns as well. The combination of those changes, including the use of NNS, is what’s likely to lead to at least modest weight loss. (It’s a sensible conclusion; we all know people who order a diet soda with their double cheeseburger and fries, and complain endlessly that they can’t lose weight.)
There’s a related possibility, too. Some researchers believe that dieters are less likely or willing to make other alterations to their dietary habits, if they’re eating desserts or drinking sodas containing non-nutritive sweeteners. In other words they still eat poorly, simply substituting no-calorie soda or sweets for the fattening versions. (There’s also a theory that regular use of no-calorie or low-calorie sugar substitutes can increase sugar and food cravings; so far, research hasn’t found that to be true.)
Here’s the most reasonable conclusion:
Monk fruit or other non-nutritive sweeteners may help with weight loss, as long as they’re part of a more comprehensive program of healthy eating and exercise.
So that’s the weight loss story. Is monk fruit linked to other health and wellness benefits?
The Health Benefits of Monk Fruit
The mogrosides in monk fruit aren’t only important because they’re extremely sweet, with no calories and no carbohydrates. They also have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
That means mogrosides can reduce what’s called oxidative stress in the body, counteracting free radicals and minimizing or preventing the damage they do to cellular tissues. That antioxidant activity helps fight such serious health issues as cardiovascular disease, inflammatory diseases, diabetes, asthma, dementia and even cancer. It may help fight the effects of aging as well.
The subject of diabetes deserves even more attention, since the mogroside V in monk fruit extract apparently stimulates the secretion of insulin. Inadequate insulin production, of course, is one potential cause of type 2 diabetes, so it’s possible that monk fruit extract may actually help in the prevention or treatment of diabetes. It would also explain findings that in diabetic mice, mogrosides were able to lower blood sugar levels as well as cholesterol levels.
Once again, these benefits have generally been shown in animal studies, not human ones. Researchers firmly believe, though, that humans receive the same beneficial effects when consuming monk fruit.
Monk Fruit Sweetener and Diabetics
Since non-nutritive sweeteners don’t boost blood glucose levels, monk fruit extract is a good sweetener choice for diabetics. Even the American Diabetes Association says it’s appropriate to use as a sugar substitute, and healthier for diabetics than artificial sweeteners.
Caution is crucial, however, when buying monk fruit extract or products containing it. Here’s why you should always check the labels.
Only a tiny bit of monk fruit extract is needed to equal the sweetness of sugar, so it’s “difficult” to use it in real life. For example, it would be much easier to pour a packet of monk fruit sweetener into your coffee or tea, instead of measuring out the fraction of a teaspoon that would really be needed.
An entire packet of the extract would be way too much, though. For that reason, monk fruit extract is usually combined with other ingredients when packaged for consumer use. Companies use safe food additives for this purpose, but not all of them are diabetic-friendly.
The most common additive is erythritol, a sugar alcohol that’s very low in calories and doesn’t affect blood sugar; stevia is also often used to bulk up monk fruit sweetener. Both are safe for diabetics. However, some manufacturers add maltodextrin, a natural thickening agent which is quite high on the glycemic index and a bad choice for diabetics. A few companies even sell monk fruit extract with added sugar and/or molasses, which are obviously very bad choices for diabetics – and generally speaking, bad choices overall.
That’s not all. Some manufacturers will add ingredients as preservatives, and many extracts contain erythritol, maltodextrin or glycerin to hide monk fruit’s noticeable aftertaste.
The best approach for those with diabetes, then, is to look for pure liquid extract sold with a small dropper, or pure crystal extract that can be measured with a tiny measuring spoon. Those products contain no additives at all.
There’s another alternative which takes the guesswork out of sweetening coffee or other beverages with monk fruit extract, and it doesn’t require tiny spoons, either. Products like Super Coffee are produced with the proper amount of monk fruit sweetener already added – so they’re convenient, tasty and don’t contain any problematic additives.
One related note: pure monk fruit sweetener is a good choice for those on a keto diet, for the same reasons it’s a preferred sweetener for diabetics: no carbs, no calories, no sugar.
Is Monk Fruit Sweetener Safe?
It’s absolutely safe for everyone to use. There’s one caveat, however.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of monk fruit extract in 2010, giving it the designation “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). A number of other countries including Canada, Japan and Australia have also approved the use of monk food sweetener (in Canada, it can only be sold in packets, like sugar). The European Union is expected to follow suit in the near future.
No rigorous studies have been done to determine whether the sweetener can cause side effects, but none have been reported over its long history – even in children, and those who are pregnant or nursing.
There’s one thing to be aware of, though. Since monk fruit is a member of the gourd family, it’s remotely possible that those with allergies to similar fruits and vegetables like squash, cucumbers and pumpkins could suffer an allergic reaction to monk fruit sweetener. Only a tiny number of people fall into this category, but if you’re one of them, check with your doctor before using monk fruit extract.
Monk Fruit Sweetener vs. Other Natural Sweeteners
The product that comes closest to monk fruit sweetener is stevia, a non-nutritive sweetener extracted from the leaves of a plant native to South America.
Like monk fruit extract, stevia is all-natural, has a glycemic index of zero, contains no carbs and no calories, and doesn’t boost blood sugar. But also like monk fruit sweeteners, stevia sweeteners may contain additional ingredients to mask their aftertaste or “bulk” them up. It’s important for diabetics or those on a keto diet to check the labels of both products for undesirable additives.
Stevia does have one drawback that’s not experienced with monk fruit. Stevia sweeteners are known to cause gastrointestinal issues like bloating, nausea and gas in some people. On the other hand, it’s usually a little cheaper than monk fruit sweetener, although both are considerably more expensive than sugar.
Truvia and Stevia in the Raw are the two biggest brands of stevia sweetener.
Erythritol and Other Food Alcohols
We’ve already mentioned erythritol, since it’s commonly added to monk fruit sweetener to provide bulk or cover monk fruit’s aftertaste. This food alcohol is commercially-produced from corn starch that has been fermented.
Erythritol tastes very much like table sugar, but only contains about 5% of sugar’s calories. It’s classified as a carbohydrate, but since it can’t be broken down in the body, it contains no net carbs. That means it has a glycemic index of zero, and no effect on blood sugar or insulin levels. Erythritol, unlike monk fruit, isn’t extremely sweet; in fact, it’s only about 70% as sweet as sugar. That makes it easier to substitute for sugar when cooking and baking.
Then why would you choose monk fruit sweetener instead? Because food alcohols are more likely to cause gastrointestinal problems. Erythritol and a similar sweetener, xylitol, are less likely to cause those issues; the food alcohols maltitol and sorbitol are worse offenders. But people prone to stomach distress, those who are sensitive to FODMAPs and those with irritable bowl syndrome are better off staying away from this class of sweeteners.
For the sake of completeness, we should mention that xylitol and sorbitol have substantially more calories than erythritol, and maltitol has a glycemic index of 36. Erythritol is the best sweetener choice among the food alcohols.
Swerve is the brand of erythritol seen most often in stores.
Buying and Using Monk Fruit Sweetener
Monk fruit sweetener has become quite popular in the last few years, and a number of brands are now on the market. They’re available in granulated, powdered, liquid and syrup forms. Be warned, though: most contain added ingredients.
For example, Nectresse is made by the same company that sells Splenda; it contains erythritol, sugar and molasses. Monk Fruit in the Raw and Lankato monk fruit sweetener contain only added erythritol. Whole Earth monk fruit sweeteners generally contain stevia as well.
There are some brands of pure monk fruit extract on the market, including Pure Monk Sweet and Purisure; you may have to look online to find them, though.
When purchasing these sweeteners, look on the label for an indication of how much mogroside V they contain. V50 denotes 50% mogroside content and will be relatively sweet. V25 monk fruit sweetener will be half as sweet as V50, while V7 will be substantially less sweet than that.
Pure monk fruit extract, because of its overpowering sweetness and lack of bulk, is best suited for use as a coffee, tea or beverage sweetener. It has a few other possible uses like sweetening marinades or sauces; just be careful not to add too much.
Monk fruit sweeteners which contain ingredients added to improve their consistency can be used for baking or cooking, but the results may not be what you’d expect.
You definitely can’t do a 1-to-1 swap of monk fruit sweetener for sugar in a recipe, since monk fruit can be as much as 100 times sweeter than sugar. It also won’t contribute any of the important texture that sugar provides.
For that reason, it makes sense to look for existing recipes designed for monk fruit sweetener. Otherwise, allow plenty of time for trial and error.
Your best bet is to reserve monk fruit extract for use as a no-calorie, no-carb sweetener for your drinks – or buying products like those sold by Super Coffee, since they’re all made with the proper, controlled amounts of this healthy, non-nutritive product.