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Monk Fruit: the New Kid in Town

Like many sugar-avoiders, I often walk the aisles of my local health food store, hoping to find some new innovation to make my journey in healthful living a bit more convenient.

I was in the impulse buy section next to the checkout line when I first spotted Lakanto’s Sugar-free Chocolate that’s monk fruit sweetened and contains 55% cacao. The only other sugar-free option I had available was Lily’s 70% and 85% dark chocolate bars, sweetened with stevia.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with extra dark chocolate. But there are times when I crave a lighter chocolate taste without the milk that usually does the lightening. I decided to try the new product after reading the historical description the company puts on the back of its bars.

As I continued down the aisles, I soon discovered that monk fruit products were everywhere. I found a maple syrup alternative, monk fruit powder and packets, liquid monk fruit, baking chips, and baking bars. I went from never having heard of the natural sweetener, to being bombarded with choices.

According to the Food Institute’s 2020 data, monk fruit skyrocketed in popularity to as high as 183% year over year, growing faster than stevia, which was up by 49% from the previous year.

Why are sugar-conscious people choosing monk fruit over stevia?

What is Monk Fruit?

Monk fruit, a.k.a. Luo han guo, is a relatively new addition to the American food scene, receiving its GRAS status (generally recognized as safe) in 2010.

However, it is far from new.

First used by Buddhist monks in in the 13th century, monk fruit has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine for its anti-inflammatory and cooling properties.

Sometimes called the “longevity fruit,” monk fruit was thought to be key in living longer and healthier lives, since the farmers who grew the fruit were long-lived.

It wasn’t used as a sweetener, however, but was dried and made into an herbal tea or soup. Other alleged medicinal benefits include stimulating mucus secretion to moisten the lungs and throat.

It was only in 1995, when Procter & Gamble patented the manufacturing process, that monk fruit began to be used as a sweetener.

Monk Fruit Characteristics

150-200X sweeter than sugar
Zero calories
Zero carbs
Zero sugar
Glycemic Index of zero
No aftertaste
Versatile sweetener
No known side effects
Safe for diabetics
Safe for children
Safe for pregnant women

Most people find the taste pleasant and closer to sugar than other natural alternatives, which may explain monk fruit’s surge in popularity.

What Makes Monk Fruit Unique?

Monk fruit’s sweetness is derived from antioxidants called mogrosides. Mogrosides make up about 30% of the product. Mogroside V in particular has been shown to be an anti-inflammatory, in addition to having antioxidant properties.

Early research indicates that mogrosides may also help in controlling blood sugar and preventing diabetic complications. Mogrosides could also help reduce oxidative stress.

Monk fruit may inhibit the growth of cancer cells, but the mechanism is unclear.

Does Monk Fruit Have Any Downsides?

Monk fruit is a member of the gourd family, so if you have a gourd allergy, you’re better off sticking with another natural sweetener, like stevia.

This round, melon-like fruit grows in Southeast Asia and can have a high cost, due to being imported. However, since its sweetness is concentrated, you may need to use less of it in order to get the desired level of sweetness. If cost is an issue, avoid pre-made food and opt for baking your own treats.

It’s difficult to grow. Monk fruit only grows in high elevations with high humidity and a large temperature difference from day to night. Unlike stevia, it’s not something you can just grow on your kitchen windowsill.

Sometimes manufacturers mix monk fruit with other ingredients, so be sure to check the label. A common added ingredient is erythritol, which is considered safe for most people, but can cause gastrointestinal discomfort if eaten in large quantities.

While generally considered not to have an aftertaste, some may find the taste unpleasant; this may have to do with the formula the manufacturers use or what the monk fruit is mixed with. I recommend trying different brands if this is the case.

Monk fruit has not been well-studied. More research is needed to test for potential side effects or health benefits.

Conclusion

The scientific research on monk fruit is preliminary. There are many promising studies, but nothing is conclusive. I would not recommend monk fruit solely for the health benefits.

If you choose monk fruit, do so because it is a delicious alternative to refined sweeteners, which won’t spike your blood sugar.