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Monk fruit sweetener has become increasingly popular in recent years, and it’s much more than just “another” sugar substitute.
When the artificial sweetener cyclamate became popular in the 1950s, it was seen as an important scientific and nutritional breakthrough – until it was banned in 1969 because it caused cancer in rats. (It’s still banned in the U.S., even though it apparently doesn’t cause cancer in humans.)
Other artificial sweeteners followed, including aspartame and sucralose. Despite health concerns, each was embraced by the market and consumers desperate for weight loss solutions.
But we’re now well into the 21st century, and it’s finally clear that there are better, natural alternatives to sugar.
Monk fruit sweetener is one of the latest entries in that group. Let’s learn more about it and what makes it different than most other sugar substitutes.
Sucrose, which we usually think of as granulated sugar, table sugar, or “regular” sugar, is an amazing substance. It’s a terrific “fast energy” source because it’s easily converted to glucose, the fuel needed by the brain and body. It’s cheap, it’s easy to measure and use, it dissolves quickly, and it tastes wonderful.
Unfortunately, it’s way too easy to consume way too much sucrose, since it’s so prevalent in many of the foods we eat. And we probably don’t have to tell you why that’s a bad idea.
Sugar contains virtually no nutrients and lots of empty calories. Overindulging can contribute to or cause weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular issues. And the resulting spikes and drops in blood sugar levels can also cause undesirable mood swings and cravings.
The very real concerns about sugar have fueled a continuing search for so-called non-nutritive sweeteners (meaning they contain no nutrients) to be used as alternatives.
Scientists have worked over the last century to create artificial sugar substitutes. Saccharin (sold under the brand name Sweet’N Low), cyclamate, aspartame (Equal), and sucralose (Splenda) are the best-known low-calorie and no-calorie sweeteners they’ve developed. Most are still used today as packaged sweeteners and in all sorts of sugar-free products.
However, some of these sweeteners have been suspected of causing potential health issues. Saccharin was banned in the early 20th century, cyclamate has been banned for decades, and some studies question the safety of other artificial sweeteners, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies them as GRAS (generally recognized as safe).
In any event, all of those sweeteners contain artificial ingredients that many consumers would prefer not to ingest. There are also studies showing potential links between the use of artificial sweeteners and weight gain, heart disease, glucose intolerance, and gut problems.
Understandably, many people have looked for alternatives to both sugar and artificial sweeteners. That search has led to a surge of interest in natural sweeteners other than table sugar.
Naturally-sweet foods like molasses, maple syrup, and coconut sugar have been used for decades or centuries. Some people trying to avoid or limit their consumption of table sugar have turned to them as healthier alternatives.
These natural sweetening agents aren’t necessarily a bad choice. They are more nutritious than sugar and have a lower glycemic index, meaning they’re better for diabetics or those trying to control their blood sugar.
They have drawbacks, though. They contain more calories than sucrose, and overconsumption can lead to the same types of problems (obesity and diabetes, for example) that sugar is known for.
Sugar alcohols aren’t really alcohol because they don’t contain ethanol. Some are sweet carbohydrates naturally found in some vegetables and fruit, and others are created when sugars like glucose or maltose are fermented. The most common examples are erythritol, xylitol, maltitol, and sorbitol; all are commonly used to produce low-calorie processed foods.
Sugar alcohols contain calories because they’re carbs, but they have fewer calories than table sugar. Their glycemic index is generally low (some sugar alcohols, like erythritol, have a GI of zero), so they’re a good choice for diabetics or those with metabolic syndrome. As a side benefit, they don’t cause the tooth decay and cavities that sugar is known for.
These sweeteners may seem like the perfect alternative to sugar, but there are two reasons why they’re not.
We’ve already mentioned one: they’re not calorie-free. The other issue is their side effects, particularly their impact on digestion. Most sugar alcohols can cause bloating, gas and diarrhea, especially when consumed regularly. Erythritol and xylitol are less problematic, but may still cause problems for those with IBS or other gut sensitivities or diseases.
All natural. No carbs. Zero calories. A glycemic index of zero. What’s not to like?
The latest class of sugar substitutes seems almost perfect. They’re sourced from plants or fruit, the FDA says they’re safe, and they’re fine for diabetics and even for those on keto diets.
The first of these sweeteners to gain popularity was stevia, but monk fruit extract is quickly gaining ground.
Let’s find out why.
Many fruits that we’ve never heard of in America grow in other parts of the world. Monk fruit is one of them.
This small, round fruit that looks like a melon is native to remote areas of southern China and Thailand. It’s a member of the gourd family, and it’s known in Asia as luo han guo. “Guo” means fruit, and “luo han” is the name of the sect of Buddhist monks who first harvested the fruit and used it for its health benefits. It was used primarily as a treatment for congestion and coughs.
The first documented use of monk fruit was some 900 years ago. However, it wasn’t widely used in traditional Chinese medicine until more recently, because it only grew in the mountains of Guilin and most healers weren’t familiar with it. And it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the fruit was “discovered” by Western explorers.
Even now, you won’t see raw monk fruit in your local grocery store or whole foods market. That’s because it has an extremely short shelf life, fermenting and turning rancid shortly after it’s been picked. The only place you may see the actual fruit, in dried form, is in Asian markets where it’s sold to be used in making tea.
Monk fruit’s suitability for modern use only became apparent fairly recently. That’s when some very smart people realized it could be turned into a nearly-perfect sugar substitute.
The monk fruit is extremely sweet, several hundred times sweeter than table sugar. That’s partly because it contains natural sugars like glucose and fructose. There’s more to the story, though.
Monk fruit is one of the only plants that contain antioxidant glycosides (simple sugar compounds) known as mogrosides. The most important and sweetest of them is called mogroside V. And mogrosides are important for several reasons.
First, they’re intensely sweet. Second, when they’re consumed they pass right through the gastrointestinal tract and are broken down in the colon, so the body absorbs no nutrients or calories from them. Finally, they’ve been shown not to increase blood glucose levels.
Processors turn monk fruit into sweetener by crushing it to create juice and then extracting the mogrosides. That way, there’s no glucose or fructose in the finished product. And when pure monk fruit extract is used as a sweetener it’s carb- and calorie-free.
We’ve established that monk fruit extract is a terrific natural sweetener. You’ve probably guessed that its extreme sweetness means that a little goes a very long way. And the FDA has designated the sweetener as safe.
Is that everything you need to know about monk fruit sweetener? Not at all. It also provides important health and wellness benefits.
You might think there could be no drawbacks to the use of monk fruit extract as a sweetener. That’s not 100% true. We’ll discuss that subject next.
Sugar is easy to purchase and use. Monk fruit sweetener can seem more difficult – until you understand exactly what to buy and how to use it.
Monk fruit extract can seem rather pricey compared to sugar or artificial sweeteners. There are good reasons for that.
Monk fruit only thrives in very specific climates, so it can’t be grown in most parts of the world. Almost all commercial plantations are still in rural China, basically in the middle of nowhere.
Monk fruit plants have to be pollinated by hand, and since the fruit goes bad soon after being picked, it has to be processed quickly in nearby plants. Only then can it be shipped elsewhere to be packaged or used to sweeten products for sale. In short, monk fruit extract is very difficult – and expensive – to produce. That’s why it’s pricier than most other sugar substitutes.
Remember, however, that monk fruit sweetener is so sweet that a little goes a long way; a supply of monk fruit extract will last much longer than a bag of sugar.
That means monk fruit sweetener is really a bargain in the long run.
Practicality is an important issue to consider because only a tiny amount of monk fruit extract is needed to equal the sweetness of sugar. End users are accustomed to using a teaspoon of sugar or a packet of sweetener in their coffee. If you added that much monk fruit sweetener to coffee, though, it would be undrinkable.
One way to solve the problem is to purchase pure monk fruit extract in liquid form and use a medicine dropper to measure it. Another is buying the granulated sweetener in bulk and using tiny spoons (you can buy them) to put a tiny amount into tea or coffee. Those solutions aren’t ideal, but they work.
What about using monk fruit sweetener in a convenient packet, just like sugar or artificial sweeteners? That’s where real problems develop.
Some manufacturers do put monk fruit extract into sugar-sized packets – but the amount of extract required to sweeten coffee only takes up a tiny portion of the packet. How do they fill up the rest of the space? They add bulk with another type of sweetener.
Most often they use the sugar alcohol erythritol. It’s safe for diabetics, only adds a few calories, and as a bonus, it disguises the slight aftertaste of monk fruit. It may cause stomach distress, though. Sometimes they use stevia, another non-nutritive, calorie-free sugar substitute that’s similar to monk fruit extract and is also OK for diabetics.
Unfortunately, many producers make worse choices. Some add maltodextrin, a sweet food additive with a high glycemic index. Others add molasses or even sugar; they bulk up the sweetener and cover the aftertaste, but are terrible for diabetics – and they’re clearly not what users are looking for when they choose monk fruit extract as a sugar substitute.
If you’re looking to buy pure monk fruit sweetener, buy it in bulk containers from brands like Purisure or Pure Monk Sweet. Both are primarily sold online. Be careful choosing other brands, though. For example, Lankato and Monk Fruit In The Raw add erythritol, and Nectress adds both molasses and sugar.
There’s a better answer.
Many food and beverage manufacturers have started using monk fruit sweetener in their products. They’re often sold as “keto-friendly” products.
The best choices are the ones that use only pure monk fruit extract (or monk fruit plus stevia) as sweeteners, along with ingredients that cover the slight aftertaste.
However, be sure to check the labels to be sure there aren’t any other “surprise” ingredients that might add unwanted calories or boost the product’s glycemic index. Super Coffee is one brand, for example, that uses pure monk fruit sweetener the right way in all of its products.
If you’re wondering whether monk fruit extract can be used for cooking or baking, the answer is “sort of.” It’s fine for sauces and marinades if used in the right proportions. But its consistency and overwhelming sweetness make it very difficult to use as a sugar substitute in recipes.
If you want to give monk fruit sweetener a try in your kitchen, your best bet is to find recipes specifically designed for the use of monk fruit extract.
Published: March 3, 2021
Last Updated: August 19, 2022
4 min read
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