There are myriad reasons why it’s a good idea to cut as much sugar as possible from your diet. Sugar is one of the top foods that increase our risk of a host of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity and heart disease. As a culture, we consume vast amounts of the stuff, each person eating an average of approximately 100 pounds of sugar per year. Many people have looked for sugar alternatives to add to their food that will not cause blood sugar to spike, particularly people who have diabetes. Many people are touting monk fruit extract as “the new stevia.” Until now, stevia has been the best option for those looking for a healthy sugar alternative, but it has a somewhat bitter aftertaste. Enter the new sweetener: monk fruit!
What Is Monk Fruit?
Monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii) is a vine that is native to Northern Thailand and Southern China. It has been used in those countries for centuries as a natural sweetener. Monk fruit is known in China as luo han guo and is used to make cooling drinks and to treat obesity and diabetes. The concentrated juice from this fruit (which is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, the same as cucumbers and squash) is 300 times sweeter than sugar. It is a small green melon about the size and shape of a lemon, and grows on a vine. Historically, it is believed that Buddhist monks were the first to cultivate the sweet fruit for medicinal purposes, thus its name.
What Are the Benefits of Monk Fruit?
Because it is so much sweeter than sugar, only a tiny amount of monk fruit extract is needed to sweeten food and beverages, so the calories it contains are negligible. Foods with less than five calories per serving are considered “no calorie” foods according to the US Food and Drug Administration. The sweetness comes from the antioxidants the fruit contains, called mogrosides. Like other antioxidants, it scavenges free radicals that cause damage to cells.
Studies have shown that mogrosides extracted from monk fruit lowers cholesterol levels, triglycerides and blood sugar in animal models while improving liver function and raising levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. In other animal experiments, monk fruit was shown to reduce histamines, which may be beneficial for those suffering from allergies and asthma.
It is a sweetener that is heat-stable and can be used in cooking and baking. It dissolves readily in liquid and can be stored for long periods of time (up to three years at room temperature) with no degradation in quality. One of monk fruit sweetener’s benefits is that it is extracted from non-GMO fruit, which cannot be said of sweeteners made from corn (high fructose corn syrup) or beets (table sugar).
The company that makes Splenda® (sucralose) also produces Nectresse®, a sweetener made from a combination of monk fruit, sugar, molasses and a sugar alcohol, erythritol. This should be used with caution, as the sugar and molasses can still raise blood sugar. Manufacturers are currently using monk fruit extract in beverages, baked goods and salad dressings, among others. Other monk fruit products are sold under the names Monk Fruit in the Raw®, Purefruit® and MonkSweet®. The best option is to look for monk fruit sweeteners with no additives other than harmless anti-caking agents such as silica or silicon dioxide.
Only water is used in the processing of monk fruit. No solvents are used for extraction, the way that stevia is produced, for example. The FDA has classified it as GRAS (generally regarded as safe) and is a product that is certified as Kosher and Halal.
One of its best features is that it is safe for diabetics to use. A serving contains only between one and two grams of carbohydrates and will not raise blood sugar. In fact, in studies done on animals it regulates blood sugar and does not promote insulin resistance the way the sugar does. It is also suitable for people on a low-glycemic diet.
And remember, although monk fruit as a sweetener is a healthy choice, the other ingredients with which it is used may not be. Eating monk fruit that has been used as a sweetener in baked goods that use refined flour and hydrogenated oil or other bad fats will not help you achieve an optimal state of health. A healthy sweetener is only one ingredient in what it means to follow a healthy lifestyle.