Monk Fruit Sweetener: Good or Bad?
Worldwide, the low-calorie sweetener (LCS) market is on track to reach $2.2 billion this year (2020).
Driven by a desire to reduce calorie intake and lose weight, consumers turn increasingly away from sugar. As they do, they look for LCS options.
However, controversy regarding the safety of these alternatives continues.
Individuals interested in maintaining their weight and overall health prefer LCS options from natural sources. One of the most popular of these options is Stevia. More recently, though, monk fruit has gained attention.
In this article we hope to address the follow questions:
- What exactly is monk fruit?
- Is monk fruit healthy?
- Is monk fruit healthier than stevia?
- Is monk fruit keto-friendly?
What is Monk Fruit?
Monk fruit is a tropical melon. Also known as the Buddha fruit, or Luo Han Guo, monk fruit grows in Southeast Asia. Prime growing regions for monk fruit include northern Thailand and southern China.
Buddhist monks have grown monk fruit for centuries. However, it can be challenging to cultivate and takes a long time to mature.
When it reaches maturity, monk fruit is small, round, and yellowish- or greenish-brown. Fine hairs cover its thin, hard skin. Beneath the skin is an edible pulp. This pulp can be eaten fresh, although it is difficult to store. Most monk fruit is dried or processed to produce the plant's sweet extract. Monk fruit tea also uses the plant's rind.
Historically, monk fruit extract has been used in traditional Chinese medicine. Typical uses include treating colds and improving digestion.
It is also common for monk fruit to assist in adding sweetness in cold drinks.
Monk Fruit Extract
Because it spoils quickly, you won't see fresh monk fruit in a grocery store near you. Recently, though, monk fruit extract has risen in popularity among health-conscious consumers.
The International Food Information Council Foundation describes monk fruit as 150-200 times sweeter than sugar. Some estimates put this number at 400 times sweeter than sugar. The relative sweetness of a monk fruit product depends on its form and any other ingredients.
The image below illustrates how Monk Fruit as a standalone sweetener fair in comparison to other low-calorie sweeteners. The after-taste on monk fruit lingers so that pairing monk fruit sweetener with specific flavors to mask the natural profile gaps is critical in the development of finished products.
If you, by chance, have issues with the taste sensation brought upon by Stevia, monk fruit may not be an excellent alternative for you as it amplifies all the flaws of Stevia.
Pure monk fruit draws its sweetness from compounds called mogrosides. To extract these compounds, processing removes the skin and seeds from fresh monk fruit. The remaining pulp is crushed to produce a juice containing mogrosides.
Because of the way the body metabolizes these compounds, monk fruit juice has zero calories.
Most studies of mogroside metabolism remain limited to animals. However, experts believe that human metabolism of mogrosides is similar. As they break these compounds down, the upper intestines do not absorb them. Thus, monk fruit extract does not provide appreciable calories.
Types of Monk Fruit Sweeteners
Pure monk fruit sweeteners contain only the fruit's juice. It is available in both liquid and powder form. As a powder, monk fruit sweetener appears white or yellow in color.
More commonly, consumers find monk fruit sweeteners that combine the extract and a bulking agent. Bulking agents include erythritol, dextrose, and allulose. The addition of these agents makes using monk fruit sweeteners easier.
Monk fruit products that contain bulking agents appear similar to sugar and other LCSs. Because the bulking agent dilutes the extract's sweetness, these products also measure similar to sugar.
Popular monk fruit sweetener products include Purefruit®, Nectresse®, PureLo®, Monk Fruit in the Raw®, and Fruit-Sweetness®.
Consumers can use these monk fruit sweeteners in drinks and even in baking. Monk fruit sweeteners remain stable at high temperatures. However, substituting monk fruit sweetener for sugar can produce differences in the texture, look, and taste of baked goods.
Consumers may also notice monk fruit sweeteners as ingredients in other products. These include juices and other cold beverages. Some dairy products and condiments also use monk fruit sweetener. Finally, like homemade baked goods, store-bought desserts and candy may also include monk fruit sweetener.
Is Monk Fruit Healthy?
The FDA originally approved monk fruit extract in 2010. At the time, it approved monk fruit for use as a tabletop sweetener and as a flavor enhancer in processed foods.
The original FDA approval excluded meat and poultry products from the list of foods that can use monk fruit sweetener. Additional updates—most recently in 2015—maintained these exclusions. They also added infant formula to the list of foods that cannot use monk fruit sweeteners.
The FDA has, thus, deemed monk fruit extract as an ingredient "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS) in most foods. Does that mean that it's healthy for you, though?
In fact, monk fruit offers some benefits. However, it is also linked to potential side effects. Furthermore, existing research, especially in humans, is limited.
Consumers should, therefore, weigh the benefits and risks before deciding to include monk fruit sweeteners in their diets.
Monk Fruit Benefits
The most obvious benefits of monk fruit sweeteners are for weight management. Pure monk fruit extract and monk fruit sweeteners that contain bulking agents contribute zero calories. Replacing high-calorie sweeteners, including sugar and honey, with LCSs, like monk fruit, can reduce a person's overall calorie intake.
Currently, the keto diet is a popular approach to weight loss. Keto dieters might wonder, then, "Is Monk Fruit Keto-Friendly?" Another benefit of pure monk fruit is that it contains zero carbs. Monk fruit extract that is combined with erythritol and allulose also contain zero carbs. Thus, these products are keto-friendly.
When used in its pure form, monk fruit's glycemic index is also zero. As such, it won't cause a spike in blood sugar and is generally recognized as safe for diabetics. Some animal studies even suggest that the mogrosides in monk fruit can help control blood sugar. However, more studies of this effect in humans are needed.
Animal studies likewise suggest that the antioxidant properties of mogrosides may offer some health benefits. Again, though, additional studies using human subjects are needed.
Proponents of monk fruit sweeteners further tout the product as a natural alternative to artificial LCSs. These include aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame, and neotame. The controversy surrounding the safety of many of these products has driven consumers toward more natural options, including monk fruit.
Among the most controversial of the artificial LCSs is aspartame. To date, studies have identified a correlation between aspartame and the following serious conditions:
- Neurological disorders, including stroke, Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and seizures
- Cardiovascular disease
- Intestinal upset
- Mood disorders
- Headaches, including migraines
While aspartame has received the most attention, other artificial sweeteners also pose health risks.
Some consumers, therefore, opt for monk fruit extract as a more natural alternative.
Monk Fruit Side Effects and Risks
Monk fruit can be a more natural sweetener option for individuals concerned with limiting their calorie intake. However, using monk fruit sweeteners can cause some side effects.
Studies of risks associated with monk fruit use, especially in humans, also remain limited. These limited investigations, again, suggest that consumers should exercise use of the sweetener cautiously.
Are Monk Fruit Sweeteners All - Natural?
First, while pure monk fruit sweeteners are natural, most commercially available monk fruit sweeteners include bulking agents. These agents, including sugar alcohols, like erythritol, are not.
These additional ingredients can also cause intestinal symptoms, including gas and diarrhea. Side effects are most common in people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBS). Consuming large quantities of LCS also makes intestinal upset more likely.
Can Monk Fruit Sweeteners Affect Gut Health?
LCSs are also linked to changes in the gut microbiota. The gut microbiome includes good and harmful bacteria. A proper balance between these types of bacteria protects the body from pathogens. The gut microbiome also plays a role in metabolism. Any alteration in this environment, therefore, can be problematic.
Existing studies have not tested the specific effects of monk fruit on gut microbes. However, studies show that other LCSs, including Stevia, alter the gut microbiome. These effects are present in human and animal studies. Additional research is needed to explore similar effects among monk fruit sweeteners.
Can Monk Fruit and Other LCSs Cause Weight Gain?
Many dieticians and weight loss experts recommend moderation in using LCSs. Studies show that using artificial sweeteners can actually increase cravings for sweets. This effect is related to how the brain processes pleasure derived from food, or "food reward."
When the brain processes food reward, it takes into account satisfaction from calories, taste, and other factors. Because LCSs do not provide calories, scientists believe they may only partially activate the food reward response. In doing so, LCSs can actually increase appetite and cravings.
Aside from this effect on the brain's circuitry, LCSs can make the desire for sweet foods more intense. As people draw more of their overall calories from processed foods, they come to expect and prefer excessively sweet flavors. As a result, they gravitate more toward processed foods. At the same time, they lose their taste for the more natural flavors of whole foods.
The effects of LCSs on overall health, thus, may not be entirely beneficial.
Are Monk Fruit Sweeteners Safe for Babies, Children, Pregnant Women, and Women Who Are Nursing?
The FDA has classified monk fruit sugar-substitutes as GRAS for children and pregnant women. However, infant formulas remain an exception to the list of foods approved to include monk fruit sweeteners. Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics has refrained from making an official recommendation on LCSs.
In large part, this hesitation derives from limited studies, which include animal and adult human subjects. In fact, no existing studies have tested the safety of monk fruit in children. Likewise, no studies have explored its effects on pregnant or lactating women.
What Do Other Food Safety Experts Say about the Safety of Monk Fruit?
While the FDA has approved monk fruit for most uses, comparable food safety agencies in the EU have not. To date, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has found insufficient evidence regarding monk fruit's safety and risks. Thus, it has yet to add monk fruit to the list of approved "Novel Foods."
Comparing LCS Options: Stevia vs. Monk Fruit
Consumers in the United States face a range of LCS options. Besides monk fruit sweeteners, stevia is another popular option.
Like monk fruit, stevia is a plant-based sweetener. Thus, stevia, like monk fruit, is marketed as a natural LCS. Stevia draws its sweetness from compounds called steviol glycosides.
How Much Sweeter Is Stevia Than Sugar?
Estimates of stevia's sweetness are comparable to those for monk fruit. Experts describe stevia as at least 200 times sweeter than sugar.
Is Stevia or Monk Fruit Better for You?
In many ways, stevia and monk fruit sweeteners appear similar. Like monk fruit sweeteners, stevia contains zero calories, carbs, and sugars.
These two LCSs also share similar side effects. Like monk fruit, stevia can cause gastrointestinal upset. Like other LCSs, stevia may also increase cravings and overall appetite.
Considering these similarities, then, is one LCS option better for you than others?
The FDA has designated monk fruit as GRAS. It has also approved some high-purity steviol glycosides as GRAS. However, it has not granted the same designation to stevia leaf or crude stevia extracts.
These regulations alone raise caution regarding stevia products.
To meet FDA requirements, stevia products also tend to be even more highly refined. Thus, consumers seeking a truly natural product might look elsewhere.
Furthermore, some consumers have experienced allergic reactions to stevia products. People with allergies to daisies, chrysanthemums, and sunflowers are at particular risk.
Finally, studies have yet to test the specific effects of monk fruit on the gut microbiome. However, existing studies have shown the potential of stevia to alter this environment.
Are LCSs Safe for You?
Ultimately, the decision to use any LCS lies with an individual. In discussion with your doctor and nutrition experts, you should educate yourself about the available products and their benefits and risks.
Further, you should take a holistic approach to the evidence. Food choices necessarily balance a variety of concerns. These include taste and enjoyment, health and safety, and cost and availability.
As you consider whether to include monk fruit sweeteners in your diet, weigh these concerns. If you can't live without a little extra sweetness, you might consider using monk fruit. Monk fruit products can provide a more natural alternative to artificial LCSs.
If you value natural, whole foods above all else, however, monk fruit products are not a panacea. Instead of adding LCSs, try experimenting with healthy food recipes. The best recipes allow the natural flavors of whole foods to shine.
Monk Fruit Benefits and Risks: Achieving Enlightenment on the Buddha Fruit's Overall Safety
Planning a diet is a complex process. Dietary decisions take into account many—and, sometimes, competing—factors. The decision to add monk fruit to your diet is no exception.
At AGN Roots, we believe that this decision is a personal one. That's why we only sell unflavored, unsweetened grass-fed whey protein. When you purchase AGN Roots Grass-Fed Whey, you're purchasing an all-natural product.
We love to hear from our community. Contact us with questions today!
~ AGN Roots Grass-Fed Whey Team