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Green Living 101: What is monk fruit?

Traditional monk fruit for sale in a Chinese market
Traditional monk fruit for sale in a Chinese marketCreative Commons (Ken Fletcher)

You may have noticed a new sweetener showing up in natural food products lately. Monk fruit has become increasingly popular, due to its natural status and lack of aftertaste.

The Dr. Oz Show and The Food Network have both recommended monk fruit, and websites like Processed Free America and Fooducate are singing its praises. Mark's Daily Apple even proclaimed it "primal" and noted the possibility that it may offer "some health effects beyond just being sweet without being caloric."

What is monk fruit?

Monk fruit is a green lemon-sized fruit that has been used for centuries by monks living in a region of Southern China. Also known as “Luo Han Guo” or longevity fruit, it was reputed to have healing abilities due to high amounts of antioxidants and vitamins.

The inner pulp of monk fruit is used to create a super-sweet product that contains very few calories, and has traditionally been used for building immunity and fighting sugar cravings.

Many natural websites have embraced monk fruit. Its alleged healing benefits include claims that it helps with a myriad of health issues, including:

  • supports the immune system, digestive tract, glands and respiratory system
  • helps alleviate allergies and has an antihistamine effect
  • helps prevent cancer
  • has a powerful effect on diabetes
  • decreases blood sugar, total cholesterol, triglycerides and improves liver function
  • increases the HDL or “good” cholesterol
  • shows promise at decreasing the risk of heart disease and strokes
  • causes a reduction in sugar levels
  • protects the kidneys from diabetic damage and may stimulate insulin secretion
  • helps treat sore throats and coughs
  • Japanese laboratory studies found that Monk Fruit showed extraordinary effects against skin cancer

A number of studies (such as this one and this one) so far have supported these claims.

Health Care Guidance says:

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).

They further point out:

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.

Monk fruit is available as an ingredient in natural food products like the So Delicious No Sugar Added frozen desserts I recently reviewed (where I was pleasantly surprised by how natural it tasted). It is also available as a powdered extract or liquid sweetener from NuNaturals.

Be aware that some food manufacturers are jumping on the monk fruit bandwagon with processed versions of monk fruit sweeteners. Consumer Reports found that Nectresse, which is "made of a sugar alcohol (erythritol), regular sugar, monk fruit extract, and molasses," left their taste testers quite unimpressed. Food Watch found that Norbu brand monk fruit sweetener was disappointing because it failed to provide enough sweetness. Another heavily processed monk fruit sweetener, Nevella Monk Fruit To Go, gave some customers headaches.

The manufacturers of Equal have also released a sweetener that is a blend of monk fruit and stevia. It contains fructose, monk fruit extract and stevia extract. Another monk fruit sweetener, Monk Fruit In the Raw, is simply dextrose and monk fruit extract. Neither company has disclosed whether the sources of fructose and dextrose are from GMO ingredients.

Keep in mind that the health benefits of monk fruit were studied using the fruit itself and the extract, and that monk fruit sweeteners may not provide the same benefits. That said, this is a great new sugar alternative to try. For best results, look for it in its purest form.

For more information on monk fruit, alleged health benefits and studies, see:

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