Full disclosure: I am not a fan of sugar-substitutes.
Of course, there are mountains of evidence about the bad effects of sugar. But artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, are just as bad as sugar (sucrose), or worse. And I’ve never found the natural substitutes such as stevia very satisfactory.
Still, I understand that many folks are unwilling to give up sweets, and they’re on the lookout for a healthy alternative to sugar. So, when I spotted a new alternative called monk fruit, I decided to unpack the science and see if this might finally be the answer. . .
Although it’s new in the Western world, monk fruit, AKA “Buddha fruit,” has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine.1 Here in the U.S., the FDA approved the commercial use of monk fruit as a sweetener in 2010.
This small, melon-like fruit is grown in Southeast Asia. The sweetener is created by first removing the seeds and skin of the fruit. Then the flesh is crushed to collect the juice, which is eventually dried into a concentrated crystal form.
The Surprising Origin of its Sweetness
Now, here’s the interesting part about monk fruit: While it contains natural sugars, they aren’t what makes it sweet. Rather it gets its intense sweetness from antioxidants called mogrosides. During the final step of processing, the mogrosides are separated from the fresh juice.
The result is a sweetener that does not contain fructose or glucose. But it’s 100-250 times sweeter than table sugar — with zero calories!
Today this monk fruit extract is used by itself in food and drinks or as part of a blend containing other alternative sweeteners.2 Yet nutrition experts recommend reading labels carefully, as monk fruit is often combined with the popular alternative sweetener called erythritol, which can cause gastrointestinal problems.3
Good News for People with Diabetes
Because monk fruit sweetener lacks calories or carbohydrates, it will not raise blood sugar levels.
A 2009 study1 using lab-cultured cells provides support for monk fruit extract. The authors say it “has the potential to be a natural sweetener with a low glycemic index, … and can provide a positive health impact on stimulating insulin secretion.”
In another study,4 this one involving mice, researchers discovered that monk fruit extract may even reduce blood sugar, as well as increase “good” HDL cholesterol.
Scientists theorize that these benefits are due to the mogrosides’ ability to stimulate insulin secretion in insulin cells. However, it’s not clear how much would be required to get similar benefits in humans.
Monk Fruit Extract and You
Some people love monk fruit extract in oatmeal, beverages and even baked goods. If you decide to try it, use it sparingly, because it’s much sweeter than sugar or honey. You don’t need much.
And another word of caution: Research suggests that adding additional sweetener (whether sugar or alternatives) can actually intensify sugar cravings rather than satisfy them.
At this point, I don’t think there are any huge risks to monk fruit extract, but be a careful label reader to ensure that it’s not combined with riskier alternative sweeteners. In terms of its health benefits, I’ll be watching for more research.