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Is Monk Fruit Sweetener the New Stevia?

The naturally-derived sugar substitute has a zero glycemic index, making it a new sugar-alternative for diabetics

With Trista Best RD and Lisa Richards RD

Monk fruit sweetener can be used in recipes as a 1:1 zero-glycemic substitute for sugar.

Monk fruit sweetener is growing in popularity and boasts similar benefits to stevia, making it a worthy new alternative sugar-substitute, especially for diabetics. If you or someone you love lives with diabetes, you may want to consider adding monk fruit, a natural sweetener with a zero-glycemic index and less of a bitter aftertaste than stevia, to your kitchen. With stevia’s zero-calorie profile and rating of zero on the glycemic index, it’s a popular item for the pantry, but it’s not alone. Move over, stevia—monk fruit is here. 

Understanding the glycemic index

The Glycemic Index (GI) tells us which carbohydrate-containing foods raise our blood glucose (or sugar) levels and which are lower on the scale. If you have diabetes, you likely know how important it is to eat low-glycemic foods, as too much glucose can be dangerous. If someone you love has diabetes, knowing about the index can be helpful when preparing food or assisting a family member who needs dietary support. 

The goal is to plan meals that are rated low to medium on the GI scale. These might include beans, corn, rice, whole grain breads, sweet potatoes, many fruits, and all non-starchy veggies. Higher GI foods include instant oatmeals (which are often loaded with processed sugars), pineapples, boxed mac and cheese, and cereals such as corn flakes. Generally, the more fat or fiber in a food, the lower on the GI scale. The more processed a food, the higher. 

When it comes to sweeteners, there are plenty on the market and mixed into our favorite foods. Look out for sweeteners such as maltodextrin, dextrose, glucose, sucrose, and even caramel, as they all rank highest on the GI. Honey, maple syrup, and agave sit squarely in the middle, and monk fruit sits on the lower end, earning a zero on GI scale, right next to stevia.

What is monk fruit —and what makes it such an ideal substitute for sugar?

Monk fruit—also known as luo han guo, lo han kuo, or Siraitia grosvenorii—is a gourd native to parts of China and Thailand. The fruit dates back to the Tang Dynasty, when it was named after a group of Buddhist practitioners, the luohan. It wouldn’t become a popular fruit for some time after—mostly due to it being quite hard to grow—but it is thought that the monks used it at the time as a medicinal food. 

It’s seeing widespread popularity now, however. According to Trista Best, RD, “It has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, but has only been used as a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved sweetener since 2010.” In fact, the FDA actually gave monk fruit the designation GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe), which includes for children and pregnant and breast-feeding women.

And while it might sound unbelievable, monk fruit is 300 times sweeter than sugar, despite it being a low-calorie, zero glycemic index sweetener like stevia.

According to the Institute for Traditional Medicine, you can thank the mogrosides (aka phytochemicals) in its fleshy center for its super sweet taste. In fact, it’s the concentration of these mogrosides that makes it so very sweet. “It is made by removing the skin and seeds from the fruit and crushing it until enough juice is present to be obtained,” Best explains. “This juice is then dried and made into a highly concentrated powder.”

Health benefits of monk fruit 

Monk fruit hasn’t been widely researched, but what we do know seems promising.

For one, if you’re looking for sweetness without the glycemic overload (and risky health side effects), monk fruit really is your best bet. As Dr. Best notes, “Monk fruit can benefit anyone wanting a low calorie sweetener with added benefits — especially those who would otherwise use table sugar to get the sweetness they desire.” 

Beyond scoring a diabetic-friendly zero on the GI scale, it offers an antioxidant boost—and that’s a good thing. Antioxidants help our bodies fight against free radicals, which are found in environmental toxins, smoke, and sun rays, and can harm our cells through a process called oxidation. For this reason, Dr. Best says, “adding monk fruit sweetener can help prevent cancer from damaged cell replication, bring balance to blood glucose, and is naturally anti-inflammatory.” This is important to note because other sweeteners, such as aspartame, which also happens to rate zero on the GI scale, may actually trigger an inflammatory reaction within the body.  

Because monk fruit is an antioxidant, many people call it a “longevity fruit,” according to Lisa Richards, RD. “Being both a calorie-free sweetener and an antioxidant makes monk fruit something of a superfood!”

She says that its antioxidant properties pack a powerful punch, especially for diabetics. “It’s also believed that its antioxidant compounds can help pancreatic cells function more efficiently, improving insulin secretion. Better insulin secretion is a major part of improving diabetic patients’ health, and monk fruit has even shown results in reducing kidney damage and other diabetes-related issues.” 

Additionally, there’s some evidence that monk fruit contains expectorant properties, which can support respiratory health, Richards says. “It’s used to clear away the inflammation to relieve sore throat, and break up phlegm in the throat and lungs. In Chinese medicine, monk fruit’s indications are referred to as ‘phlegm-fire cough,’ sore throat, tonsillitis, acute gastritis, and constipation.”

But that’s not all, she says. “It’s a popular remedy in traditional medicine to relieve the body of heat-related conditions.” Chinese herbalists would take boiled monk fruit and add it to tea to help cool the body from fever or sunburn. Like to hang out outside during the summer? Take note. 

When it comes to weight management — an important focus especially for diabetics, who tend to also have obesity or weight management issues — bringing monk fruit into the kitchen is a great place to start.

You may want to bake some of your own sweet goods using monk fruit rather than other sugars, which studies have shown can help support a healthy weight. According to the American Diabetes Association, “The use of nonnutritive sweeteners may have the potential to reduce overall calorie and carbohydrate intake if substituted for caloric (sugar) sweeteners and without compensation by intake of additional calories from other food sources.” In short, just make sure everything else you’re eating is also low on the GI scale as well, because monk fruit alone cannot help you lose weight.

How to use monk fruit sweetener

Monk fruit can be found in various forms, including crystals or granules just like sugar, packets, liquids, or powdered. You’ll also find the stuff in plenty of products such as desserts, soups, teas, juices, candies, and gum. 

Before tossing your other sweeteners, you should know a few things about monk fruit. Although it’s been rated GRAS and no studies show that monk fruit can be harmful, you should always talk to your healthcare provider first before trying a new food, especially if you’re managing diabetes. 

For one, it’s a gourd. If you’ve got gourd allergies, such as allergies to pumpkin or cucumbers, you may want to avoid monk fruit. More so, it can be hard to find the fresh gourd itself, although some Asian supermarkets may import and sell it. If you’re just looking for the dried or powdered stuff, you can usually get it online or in health food stores, but it can be a bit pricey, and that’s because it’s not the easiest food to grow. 

Remember that even though monk fruit sweetener is a new option for sugar replacement, it shouldn’t be abused, as it’s still a processed product if it’s not used fresh. Many of the companies that sell it may mix it with other ingredients, such as dextrose, to change its flavor (some people think monk fruit has a slight aftertaste)—so be sure to check the label first.

 

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