Monk fruit is becoming increasingly popular as a sugar alternative. But is it better for you?
For runners, sugar-laden products serve as a great source of energy on longer runs when you need a quick boost of fuel. But if you’re trying to cut back on sugar outside of your workouts, chances are you’ve come across monk fruit as a sugar alternative. But what is monk fruit exactly? And is it better for you than the regular sweet stuff?
We sorted through the research and spoke with Robin Foroutan, M.S., R.D., integrative and functional dietitian to find out how this tiny fruit measures up to your diet. Here’s what to know.
Monk fruit, also known as luo han guo, is tiny melon native to China. It’s a part of the gourd family along with pumpkins and melons.
Monk fruit extract, Foroutan tells Runner’s World, is often mixed with sugar alcohols like erythritol or with allulose—a rare sugar found in figs and raisins—to make monk fruit sweeteners that you can buy at the grocery store. You may also spot monk fruit mixed in products labeled keto friendly or in some baking kits like brownies. But monk fruit is hard to grow and harvest which is why monk fruit sweeteners are more expensive than something like Splenda, says Foroutan.
Monk fruit extracts are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA. This means they don’t require premarket review and the public can safely use them. In fact, when it comes to monk fruit sweeteners, the American Diabetes Association recognizes the substitute as a good alternative to sugar for those living with diabetes.
One caveat: The FDA is not responsible for validating the GRAS status, according to an article published in the journal Food Science and Human Wellness. Instead, the agency established a voluntary GRAS notification program. In other words, Foroutan explains, it’s a voluntary process that allows manufacturers to assess the health risk of a product and then decide whether it’s safe. “It’s definitely not a fail-safe plan to determine whether or not something has any sort of health risk,” she says.
That said, if you’re looking to buy a monk fruit sweetener, it’s worth looking at the label and doing some research on the manufacturer so you can check what you’re getting from the product.
As for whether monk fruit sweeteners are right for you in general, here’s what to know about how they may (and may not) help your health.
When it comes to taste, monk fruit extract has a much sweeter flavor, compared to regular sugar—actually, they’re 200 times as sweet, Foroutan says. That means a little goes a long way.
What’s more, a review published in the Pantagar Journal of Research, noted that when compared to sucrose (or table sugar), monk fruit is 300 times as sweet, without adding extra calories. That’s why the study highlights monk fruit sweeteners as an ideal replacement of sugar for those living with diabetes.
Also, monk fruit extract doesn’t cause blood sugar to spike because it doesn’t have any carbs, says Foroutan, who recommends people use it when cutting sugar from their diets. “It helps people stick to the plan a little bit better,” she says.
The sweetness we taste, Foroutan says, comes from mongroside, which has antioxidant properties. “We know in general that antioxidants are healthy, and they help our body balance inflammation,” she says, “But we don’t have any information yet on whether these particular antioxidants [in monk fruit] have any specific benefits.”
For years, in traditional Chinese medicine, monk fruit has been used to help improve dry cough, sore throat, and constipation according to a 2014 study published in the Microchemical Journal. But to date, researchers have only confirmed its benefits for those living with diabetes.
While many studies have been completed, the information is sparse when it comes to the defining health benefits of monk fruit for humans. Foroutan says she’s not concerned about the safety of using of monk fruit sweeteners in products, even though there’s still some research needed to confirm any general health benefits. That’s because people won’t consume many large amounts of it, she says.
If you’re looking for a prerun snack or something to fuel your workout, Foroutan says, you’re not really going to find it with monk fruit. It’s not the ideal sugar for that purpose, and that’s because it doesn’t have the carbohydrates you need to feed your muscles. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use monk fruit sweeteners at all—they’ll still sweeten up something like a cup of oatmeal when you want a less bland bowl.
The trick is to be mindful and eat products with monk fruit sweeteners in moderation, Foroutan says. “In general, the overall pitfall when we’re talking about hyper-sweet sugar substitutes—even when they’re natural—is that they can still encourage people to crave sweeter things.”
If you want to give monk fruit sweeteners a try, you can find them in different variations like powdered monk fruit, granulated monk fruit, and as monk fruit syrup. “You can bake with [these products]; put them in your coffee or tea; you can pretty much use them like you would table sugar,” says Foroutan.