With sugar intake at an all-time high, finding healthier, sweet alternatives has been a priority for many people. The problem is, sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners tend to be filled with other harmful chemicals and ingredients, and some even contain calories and affect blood sugar levels, despite what many people believe. Enter monk fruit.
Monk fruit sweetener has been celebrated as a revolutionary way to sweeten foods and drinks without the harmful effects of traditional sugar and certain sugar substitutes.
What are the health benefits of monk fruit? It contains compounds that, when extracted, are an estimated 200-300 times sweeter than regular cane sugar but with no calories and no effect on blood sugar.
Sound too good to be true? It’s not!
This fruit has been used as a sweetener for centuries, and after many years of only being available overseas, it’s recently become easier to find in grocery stores in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Monk fruit (species name Momordica grosvenori) is also called luo han guo. This small, green fruit is a member of the Cucurbitaceae (gourd) plant family.
It was was named after monks that harvested the fruit in southern Chinese mountains as early as the 13th century.
Rarely found in the wild, monk fruits were originally grown in regions including the Guangxi and Guangdong Mountains in China. The Chinese government has actually a ban on monk fruit and its genetic material, stopping it from leaving the country.
Therefore the fruit must be grown and manufactured in China. This, combined with the complicated process of extraction, makes monk fruit products expensive to create.
Is monk fruit good for you? It has long been regarded as the “longevity fruit” thanks to its high antioxidant levels and anti-inflammatory effects.
Throughout history, it was used medicinally as an expectorant, cough remedy, treatment for constipation and as a remedy for clearing heat/fevers from the body.
Today, experts consider sweet extracts of natural plants, such as stevia and monk fruit, to be attractive alternatives to sugar.
A 2019 report published in the International Journal of Vitamin and Mineral Research Consumption explains :
Unfortunately substituting sugar with the currently available artificial sweeteners does not appear to have favorable clinical effects. Given the health-related concerns with the currently available sweeteners such as increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes there is renewed interest in identifying a safe and palatable sweetener.
Monk fruit sweeteners come in several forms: liquid extract, powder and granules (like cane sugar).
Monk fruit, technically speaking, contains a very small amount of calories and carbohydrates, just like other fruits and vegetables. However, it’s not commonly consumed fresh (since the fruit begins to taste rotten quickly after harvesting), and when dried its sugars break down.
When eaten fresh, monk fruit has about 25 percent to 38 percent carbohydrates, as well as some vitamin C.
Because of its short shelf life after being harvested, the only way to enjoy fresh monk fruit is to visit the Asian regions. This is why it’s often dried and processed.
After drying, the trace amounts of fructose, glucose and other components are considered insignificant, so it’s typically counted as a zero-calorie food.
Many users of monk fruit sweeteners say the taste is pleasant and that there’s little to no bitter aftertaste, unlike some other sugar substitutes.
It’s not sweet due to natural sugars like most fruits. It contains powerful antioxidants called mogrosides, which are metabolized differently by the body than natural sugars.
That’s why, despite their very sweet taste, these fruits virtually contain no calories and have no effect on blood sugar.
Mogrosides provide varying levels of sweetness — the type known as mogrosides-V being the highest and also the one associated with the most health benefits. Some products produced with monk fruit may be intensely sweet but can be cut down and used in moderation.
Monk fruit’s mogrosides, the compounds that give it its intense sweetness, are also powerful antioxidants. Oxidative stress plays a part in many diseases and disorders, and choosing high-antioxidant foods is the key to reducing free radical damage in the body.
Studies have shown that mogrosides“significantly inhibited reactive oxygen species and DNA oxidative damage.” The fact that the same monk fruit ingredients that provide antioxidants also provide a no-calorie sweetener makes it nothing less than a superfood.
It’s estimated Americans consume 130 pounds of sugar per year, as opposed to our ancestors in the early 1800s who averaged about 10 pounds. This surge in sugar intake has ballooned obesity rates, as well as cases of diabetes.
A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Obesity states, “Substituting sweeteners with non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) may aid in glycaemic control and body weight management.” In this study, non-nutritive sweeteners included aspartame, monk fruit and stevia, which were found to contribute substantially less to total daily energy intake, postprandial glucose and insulin release compared with sucrose-sweetened beverages.
Monk fruit may improve insulin response and does not affect blood sugar levels the way natural sugars do, according to research studies. This means it can provide the sweet flavor we strongly crave without the damaging side effects.
Research indicates that using monk fruit sweetener may help those already suffering from obesity and diabetes from furthering their condition. Another benefit compared to other sweeteners is that the sweetener is extracted from non-GMO fruit, unlike table sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
Ancient Chinese usage of this fruit included drinking tea made from the boiled fruit to cool the body from ailments, including fever and heat stroke. It was also used to soothe a sore throat.
This method works because of monk fruit’s mogrosides, which have natural anti-inflammatory effects.
There’s evidence suggesting that the seeds and extract taken from this fruit have anti-carcinogenic effects. Monk fruit extract has displayed an ability to inhibit skin and breast tumor growth and to provide proteins that have anticancer abilities.
There is irony in the fact that other sweeteners are shown to increase the risk of cancer, while monk fruit sweetener seems to have the power to reduce it.
When treating bacterial infections, antibiotics are widely overused. Natural antimicrobial agents are much better options to fight off infections to slow the ongoing surge of antibiotic resistance.
Monk fruit has shown the ability to inhibit the growth of certain bacteria, specifically oral bacteria that cause tooth decay and periodontal disease.
These studies also show the fruit’s ability to fight some forms of candida symptoms and overgrowth, like oral thrush, which when left untreated can affect many other body systems.
In a study on mice, monk fruit extracts were successful in decreasing fatigue in exercising mice. The study was able to reproduce the results and prove that mice given the extract had extended exercise times.
This study provides evidence as to why monk fruit has long been referred to as the “longevity fruit.”
This fruit was used as an antidiabetic by the Chinese for centuries. Aside from being a proven antihyperglycemic (which helps bring down the blood glucose levels in the body), animal studies have also shown targeted antioxidant abilities toward pancreatic cells, allowing better insulin secretion in the body.
The antidiabetic abilities of the monk fruit are associated with its high levels of mogrosides. Better insulin secretion is a major part of improving diabetic patients’ health, and monk fruit has even shown in animal studies to potentially reduce kidney damage and other diabetes-related issues.
As a sweetener with a low glycemic index, it’s also a way for those struggling with diabetes to be able to enjoy a sweet flavor without the concern of affecting or worsening their diabetic condition. For this same reason, monk fruit is a good choice for people following the keto diet or other low-carb diets.
Monk fruit extract, when used repeatedly, has shown an ability to fight allergic reactions as well.
In a study with mice, monk fruit was administered repeatedly to mice exhibiting nasal rubbing and scratching due to histamines. The study showed that “both the [lo han kuo] extract and glycoside inhibited the histamine release” in the test subjects.
What are the side effects of monk fruit? It’s generally considered to be very safe, since there have been very few reported side effects or negative reactions.
It appears to be safe for adults, children and pregnant/nursing women to consume, based on available research and the fact that it’s been consumed for centuries in Asia.
Unlike some other sweeteners, it’s unlikely to cause diarrhea or bloating when consumed in moderate amounts.
As a sugar substitute it was approved for use by the FDA in 2010 and is considered “generally safe for consumption.” That said, its approval was pretty recent, so there are no long-term studies available to test monk fruit side effects over time, meaning it’s best to exercise care when consuming it in large amounts.
In the United States, the FDA allows any food/beverage that has less than 5 calories per serving to be labeled as “calorie-free” or “zero calorie.” Both monk fruit and stevia sweeteners fall into this category.
This makes both products good options if you’re watching your weight or blood sugar levels.
Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni), a plant that’s native to South America, is grown to produce stevia extract, another popular sweetener and sugar sub.
Stevia is considered a “high intensity sweetener,” since steviol glycosides that are extracted from the stevia plant are around 200–400 times sweeter than cane sugar. A specific glycoside found in stevia plants called rebaudioside A (Reb A) is used in most commercially available product.
In extract/powder form, stevia doesn’t impact blood sugar levels and is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the FDA. However, at this time the FDA still hasn’t given whole leaf stevia an official GRAS label since more research is required.
Both monk fruit and stevia are heat-stable, meaning you cook and bake with them up to about 400 degrees Fahrenheit without altering their taste. Some people find that stevia has a bit of an after taste and doesn’t mimic the taste of cane sugar as closely as monk fruit does.
What’s the best monk fruit sweetener to purchase? Because of its short shelf life, the only way to try monk fruit fresh would be to travel to Southeast Asia and buy one fresh off the vine, which obviously is unrealistic for many people.
The next best way to try monk fruit extract or monk fruit powder is to purchase it in dried form.
Wondering where to buy monk fruit? Dried monk fruit can be found online (such as on Amazon) and at many Chinese markets.
You can use the dried fruit in soups and teas.
You can also make your own monk fruit sugar substitute by creating an extract (try following one of the Liquid Stevia Extract recipes here).
You can choose to make it using alcohol, pure water or glycerin, or a combination of the three. Making your own solution at home ensures you know what ingredients are used and the quality of ingredients.
Monk fruit extract is manufactured in a number of different ways. Most commonly, the fresh fruit is harvested and the juice is combined with a hot water infusion, filtered and then dried to create a powdered extract.
Some types may be labeled as “monk fruit in the raw” if they don’t contain other ingredients.
The sweetness is contained in the mogrosides, and depending on the manufacturer, the percentage of the compound varies, which means different products will have different sweetness levels.
Beware of types that include added ingredients like molasses and a sugar alcohol called erythritol, which may cause digestive issues among some people.
Not a fan of monk fruit’s taste? You may want to try using other sweeteners, such as stevia or xylitol instead. If you don’t mind consuming actual sugar and calories, other options include raw honey, molasses and real maple syrup.
Use these in foods such as oatmeal, baked goods, coffee and tea to help cut down on your processed sugar intake.