For people with a self-described “sweet tooth,” cutting out sugary treats is often the most difficult part of eating healthier. To satisfy these cravings for something sweet, many people turn to natural sweeteners. They use natural sweeteners as a substitute for caloric added sugar.
One of the most popular calorie-free, natural sweeteners is monk fruit extract.
Monk fruit extract is a sweetener derived from the small melon called luo han guo. This melon is native to parts of southeast Asia, specifically southern China and northern Thailand. Monk fruit was first used by Buddhist monks in the 13th century — hence, the name “monk fruit.” For centuries, monk fruit was used as a cold and digestive aid; now, it is commonly used to sweeten foods and beverages.
Monk fruit ferments and grows rancid quickly after it's harvested, so the melon is rarely eaten fresh. Instead, monk fruit is dried to make medicinal teas and herbal remedies, and its extract is used to make sweeteners. Monk fruit sweeteners are created by removing the seeds and skin of the fruit. The fruit is then crushed, and its juice is collected.
The compounds that give ripe monk fruit its sweetness are called mogrosides. A specific type of mogroside called mogroside V is the primary component of monk fruit sweetener. Mogrosides have glucose units attached to them. Gut microbes cleave off the glucose molecules when they reach the colon and use them as an energy source. These compounds are not absorbed in the upper gastrointestinal tract and do not contribute to any calories to our diet. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Chromatography B: Analytical Technologies in the Biomedical and Life Sciences, antioxidant mogrosides can help protect against diabetes.
Per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the extract of Siraitia grosvenorii Swingle — the scientific name for monk fruit — is 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar. Although monk fruit extract is especially sweet, it has zero calories, zero carbohydrates, zero sodium, zero fat and rates a zero on the glycemic index. Monk fruit extract is recognized by the FDA as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). This category requires expert consensus that a food ingredient is safe for its intended use. There is not an acceptable daily intake (ADI) limit established for monk fruit sweeteners, as adverse effects have not been demonstrated even after high amounts of monk fruit sweeteners were given in animal studies.
Unlike sugar and most artificial sweeteners, monk fruit extract has a number of health benefits. Monk fruit has anti-inflammatory properties, which is why it has been used for centuries to make hot drinks to treat sore throats and reduce phlegm. According to a 2011 article titled “Anti-inflammatory Activities of Mogrosides from Momordica grosvenori in Murine Macrophages and a Murine Ear Edema Model” published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the natural sweetening mogrosides contained in monk fruit are antioxidative, anticarcinogenic and helpful in preventing diabetic complications. With no calories, carbs or fat, monk fruit is a great option for people looking to lose weight, people who are on a low-carb or keto diet or people who are gluten-free. Dieters are able to cut back on substantial calories and carbs just by substituting table sugar with monk fruit extract. Monk fruit contains zero calories compared to 16 calories in a teaspoon of sugar.
Because monk fruit extract is all-natural, users can avoid the drawbacks of arti?cial sweeteners. Many nonnutritive sweeteners can cause allergic reactions or side effects like gas and bloating, but with monk fruit sweeteners, there are no known side effects. Users can also avoid the drawbacks of sugar. According to a 2016 study titled “Relationship between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding” published in the journal Nutrients, consumption of added sugars has been linked to increased risk of a variety of chronic diseases including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), as well as cognitive decline and even some cancers. By using monk fruit instead of sugar, you can help protect yourself from these diseases and health problems that are linked to sugar. Monk fruit sweeteners also do not raise blood sugar levels, making it generally safe for people with diabetes to consume.
With its seemingly endless list of “pros” and health benefits, it’s easy to see why monk fruit extract has become a popular sweetener and sugar alternative.
As mentioned above, there are no known side effects associated with using monk fruit extract as a sweetener. Monk fruit extract has been safely used for centuries in Asian cultures and has not demonstrated any side effects, even after being consumed in high amounts.
Although it’s rare, it is possible for a person to have monk fruit allergies. Monk fruit is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family — also known as cucurbits or the gourd family. This family includes pumpkin, squash, cucumbers and melons (like monk fruit). The risk of monk fruit allergy increases if you’re allergic to other members of the gourd family. According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of allergic reaction may include:
Tingling or itching in the mouth
Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat or other parts of the body
Wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing
Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
Monk fruit and stevia are both all-natural, plant-based sources of sweetness that have been used in Asia and South America for thousands of years.
Stevia sweeteners are derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, an herbal shrub native to South America also known as candyleaf, sweetleaf or sugarleaf. The sweet substances found in the stevia leaf are called steviol glycosides. Stevia sweeteners are made by extracting steviol glycosides from the leaves of the stevia plant and purifying them to remove some of the leaves’ bitter attributes. Steviol glycosides all have a common basic backbone called steviol. As noted in the 2016 article “Biological fate of low-calorie sweeteners” published in Nutrition Reviews, steviol includes compounds like stevioside and many different forms of rebaudiosides — rebaudioside A (or reb A) being the most common. Some steviol glycosides are also made through processes called bioconversion and fermentation, which allow sweeter (and less bitter) stevia rebaudiosides to be produced on a larger scale.
Like monk fruit extract, purified extracts of steviol glycosides are deemed GRAS by the FDA. (However, whole stevia leaves are not permitted to be sold as sweeteners in the United States because there is not enough toxicological information on these products, per the FDA). Stevia sweeteners are also calorie-free, as purified steviol glycosides are not absorbed in the upper gastrointestinal tract. When they reach the colon, gut microbes cleave off the glucose molecules and use them as an energy source. The remaining steviol backbone is then absorbed, metabolized by the liver and then excreted in urine, according to a 2008 study titled “Comparative toxicokinetics and metabolism of rebaudioside A, stevioside, and steviol in rats” published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.
As far as sweetness, Stevia is even sweeter than monk fruit extract. According to the Cleveland Clinic, stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. (Remember, monk fruit is 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar.) Stevia is also more bitter — many users report that it has a bitter aftertaste.
Stevia has more known side effects than monk fruit. Some people report experiencing gas, nausea or bloating related to stevia consumption. A 2018 New York Times article about the possible downsides of stevia notes that some products containing stevia also include sugar alcohols like erythritol, which can cause digestive complaints if consumed in large amounts.
(However, a 2017 study titled “Effect of Incorporating Stevia and Moringa in Cookies on Postprandial Glycemia, Appetite, Palatability, and Gastrointestinal Well-Being” published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition notes symptoms like bloating and diarrhea have not been reported in many stevia studies.)
Stevia can also cause allergic reactions in persons allergic to any plant from the Asteraceae family, or sunflower family — daisies, ragweed, chrysanthemums and sunflowers. The Stevia rebaudiana plant is part of the aster family.
Despite a few infrequent downsides, both monk fruit extract and stevia are great natural, plant-derived sweetener options, especially for people trying to lose weight. They are both calorie-free, don’t raise blood sugar levels and available in many forms (including liquid, granule, and powder).
Monk fruit extract is most commonly used as a sugar substitute in baked goods, drinks, soups and sauces.
When replacing sugar with monk fruit extract, it’s important to remember the fact that monk fruit is 100 to 200 times sweeter than sugar. You can add it to a food recipe or beverage to sweeten up the taste, but a little goes a long way. Because monk fruit extract is much sweeter than sugar, a 1-to-1 substitution may be too sweet. For example, you might only need 1 teaspoon of monk fruit extract if you’re used to adding 2 teaspoons of sugar to your morning coffee. Take some time to experiment in the kitchen to find the best ratio for your taste preferences.
The same warning applies to baking: Trying to bake with monk fruit sweetener instead of sugar can get a little tricky, as using it as a 1:1 replacement for sugar can leave you with an overly-sweet treat. Make sure you make proper adjustments so your baked good has the right amount of sweetness.
Also pay attention to the form of your monk fruit sweetener. For example, many people find granulated monk fruit sweetener works best for most baked goods but powdered monk fruit sweetener has a better texture for making sugar-free glazes and frostings. Liquid monk fruit extract is usually better in desserts that already call for liquid sweeteners.
It might take some time and experimentation, but you will find monk fruit extract is extremely versatile and has countless uses, making it an excellent replacement for sugar and other sweeteners.
There are dozens of monk fruit sweetener brands on the market. As noted above, monk fruit comes in different forms: liquid, powdered, granulated, pure monk fruit extract, with erythritol, with glucose or maltodextrin, a monk fruit-stevia blend, etc. Just like there are many different forms, there are a number of quality brands of monk fruit extract. From Lakanto to SweetLeaf to Health Garden, people gravitate toward different brands. The “best” brand is all just based on your preferences. Read the labels and try several different brands with a variety of foods and drinks to determine which brand and which type of monk fruit sweetener is best for you.
At Gainful, we also use organic monk fruit extract to give our products natural sweetness. In fact, monk fruit and organic stevia leaf extract are the only two sweeteners used in Gainful products. Gainful offers users the chance to create a personalized protein blend made specifically for their body, diet, lifestyle and overall wellness goals. Every Gainful protein blend comes 100% unsweetened and flavor-free, but each order includes Flavor Boost packets. These Flavor Boosts are made with stevia extract and monk fruit extract and come in a range of natural flavors so users can switch up the flavor of their protein. Flavor Boosts are available in flavors like Rich Cocoa, Cookies & Cream, Caffè Mocha, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Strawberry Cream, Madagascar Vanilla and Matcha Green Tea. These small packets provide full-body flavor and a sweet taste, without any added sugar, artificial sweeteners or additives. Simply mix one or two scoops of personalized protein powder with water, ice-cold milk (almond, soy or any other type) or your favorite beverage, add your Flavor Boost packet, shake and enjoy.
(For best results, mix 4-8 oz of liquid per serving of protein powder. Your protein powder and Flavor Boosts can also be mixed with smoothies, oats, peanut butter, vegetables and fruits.)
Monk fruit extract provides the perfect amount of sweetness to your protein treat, and the stevia we use is a special, debittered stevia extract that tastes remarkably similar to natural cane sugar with no strange aftertaste or bitterness.
Thanks to monk fruit extract, Gainful products taste sweet and delicious — no added sugar necessary.