If you’re into low-carb diets, chances are you’ve heard of monk fruit. However, if you’re like the rest of us, this sweet green fruit may be something of a mystery. But more and more people are touting monk fruit as the next hot zero-calorie sugar substitute, so we decided to look into the claims and find out if monk fruit sweetener is really all it’s cracked up to be.
What Is Monk Fruit?
Monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii), or luo han guo, is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which makes it technically a gourd. Native to Southeast Asia, including Southern China and Northern Thailand, monk fruit gets its name from the Buddhist monks who are said to have first cultivated it in the 13th century.
While monk fruit has only recently become known in the United States, it’s an important part of traditional Chinese medicine and is used to treat sore throat, cough, pulmonary problems, constipation, and swollen lymph nodes.
Monk Fruit Sweetener: Nutrition and Safety
The natural sweetener that comes from monk fruit is made by removing the fruit’s skin and seeds and squeezing and extracting the juice. The fruit extract, or juice, that remains after this process is incredibly sweet but contains no calories, as the sweet taste of monk fruit comes not from natural plant sugars but from compounds called mogrosides.
Depending on the levels of mogrosides present, monk fruit sweetener is 100 to 250 times sweeter than table sugar. But because it’s a zero-calorie sweetener, monk fruit has a glycemic index of zero, which means it doesn’t affect blood sugar levels. It also contains no carbohydrates or fat and is naturally gluten free, which makes it safe for those suffering from gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.
As you might imagine, the sugar-free nature of monk fruit sweetener makes it a popular choice among people interested in weight loss. After all, regular sugar and other natural sweeteners like honey and agave have around 20 calories per teaspoon. And if you eat a lot of sugar, those kinds of calories can quickly add up.
Even so, monk fruit sweetener is often mixed with other ingredients, such as fillers, stabilizers, and sugar alcohols like erythritol and xylitol, and these types of substances are not calorie free. Still, the total amount of calories these ingredients add is negligible.
But is monk fruit sweetener safe?
Monk fruit sweetener was designated “generally recognized as safe” by the Food And Drug Administration (FDA) in 2010, so yes, it’s considered safe. However, if you’re concerned about added calories or experience side effects with sugar alcohols, be sure to read the label to make sure you’re getting pure monk fruit sweetener, without any added ingredients.
And one more thing…
Like other natural and artificial sweeteners, some people experience an aftertaste when using monk fruit sweetener. In fact, some manufacturers add additional ingredients like dextrose and maltodextrin in an attempt to disguise any lingering taste. However, maltodextrin and dextrose are highly processed carbohydrates that are often manufactured using GMO corn, so anyone concerned about genetically engineered foods should keep that in mind as well.
Still, some people don’t notice any aftertaste with monk fruit sweetener, so it could be that the flavor is all in the eye, or taste buds, of the beholder.
Monk fruit sweetener also has no known harmful side effects, so this low-glycemic sweetener can be safely used in all your favorite foods and beverages, including coffee, tea, salad dressings, sauces, smoothies, oatmeal—even cakes and cookies!
However, if you’ve had reactions to other members of the gourd family, it’s possible you may have a reaction to monk fruit sweetener as well, so pay attention to any warning signs, like skin rash, difficulty breathing, or other symptoms that may signal an acute allergic reaction.
Monk Fruit Health Benefits
Although monk fruit sweetener is considered a nonnutritive sweetener (meaning it contains few or no calories), there are potential health benefits associated with its use.
As mentioned, monk fruit sweetener doesn’t affect blood sugar levels, making it an effective sugar replacement for diabetics.
The fruit also contains numerous compounds that act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories and may help prevent infections and cancer. In addition, monk fruit extract is being studied for its ability to help combat fatigue and allergies.
Considering that you don’t really expect a sweetener—natural or otherwise—to be particularly good for you, let’s take a minute to look at what some of the science has to say about the potential health benefits of monk fruit.
Monk Fruit and Blood Sugar
According to the American Heart Association, ballooning levels of obesity are partially the result of Americans’ increased use of added sugars over the past 30 years. But natural sweeteners like monk fruit offer sweet taste without all the calories or adverse effects on blood sugar.
What’s more, a 2013 study on mice found that the mogrosides in monk fruit exert an antioxidant effect on cells in the pancreas, which protects them from oxidative stress—a factor known to influence the development of type 2 diabetes.
This study backs up findings from a 2006 mouse study that also demonstrated antidiabetic effects of the mogrosides in monk fruit extract. Likewise, a mouse study from 2007 found that supplementation with monk fruit extract may prevent complications from type 2 diabetes.
And a 2009 study found that one particular mogroside—mogroside V—has the ability to stimulate the secretion of insulin, which plays a key role in maintaining blood sugar balance.
From Antioxidant to Cancer and Infection Prevention
There are five mogrosides in monk fruit that are responsible for its sweetness. Of these, mogroside V is the sweetest. And, in an ironic twist, mogroside V has also been found to offer the most health benefits.
One of these benefits is its antioxidant activity. In fact, while all mogrosides have been found to demonstrate antioxidant activity, mogroside V has consistently demonstrated superior antioxidant capabilities.
What’s more, these same compounds have been found to act as anti-inflammatory agents. This is important because chronic inflammation is linked to a number of diseases, including heart disease and cancer.
In addition, antioxidants, like those in monk fruit, are known to scavenge the free radicals that damage DNA and lead to inflammation, and this can help stop the growth of cancer cells.
One of the antioxidants in monk fruit is a compound called cucurbitacin, which is a substance common to all members of the Cucurbitaceae family. Several studies have found that cucurbitacin helps stop the proliferation of a number of cancers, including brain, breast, prostate, lung, liver, skin, and cervical cancers, and also enhances the effects of certain types of chemotherapy.
Moreover, studies have found that the mogrosides in monk fruit exhibit potent antitumor properties that may make the fruit an important part of cancer prevention.
A 2009 study also discovered an entirely new substance in monk fruit researchers christened siraitiflavandiol. This compound—which has a chemical designation that makes the word siraitiflavandiol seem positively quaint—was found to have the ability to inhibit the growth of the oral bacteria Streptococcus mutans and Porphyromonas gingivalis as well as Candida albicans.
Fatigue and Allergies
A 2013 study looking at the effects of monk fruit extract on physical fatigue in mice found that monk fruit had significant dose-dependent anti-fatigue effects. And a 2005 mouse study demonstrated that supplementing with monk fruit for 4 weeks inhibited the release of histamine and reduced allergic reactions.
Monk Fruit vs. Stevia
The natural sweetener stevia is extracted from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana, a plant native to South America. Like monk fruit, stevia is much sweeter than table sugar, but unlike monk fruit, its sweetness is due to the presence of substances called steviol glycosides.
After becoming popular in the United States in the mid-1980s, stevia was actually banned in 1991 due to concerns that the sweetener may cause cancer. However, the FDA overturned the ban in 2008, stevia was reintroduced to the country, and the natural sugar replacement promptly regained its popularity.
Even though the FDA now designates stevia “generally recognized as safe,” this applies only to highly purified extracts of steviol glycosides. Imports of both stevia leaf and crude extracts still aren’t allowed due to “inadequate toxicological information.”
By contrast, monk fruit sweetener has only been around the past several years, though the world’s hunger for natural alternatives to sugar means it’s steadily gaining in popularity as well.
Like monk fruit, stevia contains no calories, sugar, or carbohydrates and is available in many forms. And many people find that stevia has an unpleasant aftertaste as well, with a flavor reminiscent of licorice. But stevia also has some side effects not seen with monk fruit sweetener, including gas, nausea, and bloating.
Another similarity is that both natural sweeteners are more expensive than regular sugar. However, stevia is much less expensive than monk fruit—a difference that’s due to several factors.
China, anticipating a market for monk fruit, banned removal of both the fruit and its genetic material from the country in 2004. What’s more, it’s difficult to grow and process monk fruit, which means that monk fruit sweetener tends to cost 2 to 3 times more than the equivalent amount of stevia.
But if you’re interested in weight loss or are diabetic or just interested in getting rid of some of the sugar in your diet, you may want to give one of these natural sweeteners a try.
Both can be healthier alternatives to excessive sugar consumption, and both are better for you than artificial sweeteners, which have been shown to cause disturbances in metabolism by altering the activity of certain genes.
Whatever you decide, it really comes down to which you prefer—though if emerging studies are any indication, the health benefits of monk fruit can’t be beat!