This content originally appeared on Everyday Health. Republished with permission.
Written By Stephanie Thurrott
Medically Reviewed by Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES
As more people try to cut back on sugar in the foods they eat, and avoid artificial sweeteners, the market for natural products that can mimic sugar’s taste has grown. One natural sweetener in particular that has been growing in popularity is monk fruit, or luo han guo. This calorie- and carb-free sugar alternative, which is extracted from a fruit, has been used for hundreds of years in its native China, but only began popping up on Western restaurant tables, supermarket shelves, and social media feeds in the last 20 years or so.
So, is monk fruit actually a healthy alternative to sugar? Here’s what to know about this increasingly popular sugar substitute and packaged food ingredient.
In America, monk fruit is mainly used as a zero-calorie, zero-carb alternative to sugar, and sold as a powder that can be added to coffee, tea, smoothies, or oatmeal. You can also buy it as a liquid, or as a granulated product formulated to use in baking. You’ll sometimes see monk fruit added to packaged foods like chocolate or granola bars.
Research on monk fruit and its extracts is ongoing, but it shows promise in managing inflammation, diabetes, cancer, and other health conditions.
Common Questions & Answers
Is monk fruit better than sugar?
Too much of either isn’t helpful. There is no acceptable daily intake established for monk fruit, but studies have used amounts up to 60 milligrams per kilogram of body weight without negative effects.
Can you eat monk fruit if you have type 2 diabetes?
Yes. Monk fruit can be a better choice than sugar because it can help stabilize blood sugar levels. It can also help people with diabetes manage their weight and heart health.
Does monk fruit have calories?
No, monk fruit doesn’t have calories or carbs. That’s what makes it an attractive alternative to sugar, which has 16 calories and 4 grams of carbs per teaspoon.
How do you use monk fruit?
You’ll commonly see monk fruit in a sweetener packet that you can add to coffee, tea, smoothies, or oatmeal in place of sugar. It’s sometimes added to packaged foods. And there are types you can use for baking and cooking.
What does monk fruit taste like?
Monk fruit is between 100 and 250 times sweeter than sugar. That’s why the packets are so small, and you can’t do one-for-one substitutions when you’re baking with it. Some people have noted a bitter aftertaste.
Nutritional Facts of Monk Fruit
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a serving of monk fruit sweetener contains zero calories and less than one gram (g) of carbohydrates. That makes it an attractive substitute for sugar, which has 16 calories and 4 grams of carbs in a teaspoon, per the USDA. Monk fruit sweetener has become popular for devotees of low-carb diets like the ketogenic diet. It’s comparable with other sugar substitutes such as stevia and saccharine.
Potential Health Benefits of Monk Fruit
Research so far on monk fruit has mainly studied effects on animals and on human cells, not on humans. “These studies can give us insights into the potential of monk fruit and monk fruit extract,” says Samantha Cassetty, RD, the New York City–based coauthor of Sugar Shock. “But it’s really hard to say anything definitively in terms of long-term safety and efficacy based on what we know at this point.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that monk fruit extracts were generally recognized as safe in 2017. In December 2019, however, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that there’s not enough data to determine whether or not monk fruit extracts are safe.
Still, monk fruit shows potential health benefits in these areas:
Blood Sugar Management According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), sugar substitutes, including monk fruit, could help some people better manage their blood sugar, weight, and heart health. The ADA does note, however, that “there is no clear evidence to suggest that using sugar substitutes will help with managing blood sugar or weight or improving cardiometabolic health in the long run.” One study of obese rats with type 2 diabetes found that a certain monk fruit extract helped control blood sugar and cholesterol levels, which contribute to diabetes, according to the results, which were published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in January 2020. These findings still need to be confirmed in humans. Cancer Monk fruit may show promise to slow cancer growth in the pancreas and treat cancer in the larynx and colon, according to research published in July 2022 in the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology. Inflammation The antioxidants monk fruit contains might have anti-inflammatory effects, according to research published in Toxicology in Vitro in February 2022. Asthma Theoretically, monk fruit could have properties that could help lessen inflammation in asthma, according to a study published in Phytomedicine in October 2021. Parkinson’s Disease Researchers are exploring whether a component in monk fruit might affect the development of Parkinson’s disease, according to research published in Molecular Neurobiology in April 2022. Alzheimer’s Disease A study on mice that was published in the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology in May 2019 found that a component in monk fruit may show promise in slowing the memory impairment of Alzheimer’s disease.
Can Monk Fruit Help With Weight Loss?
It’s possible that monk fruit sweetener could contribute to weight loss. Because monk fruit does not contain any calories, “It could help you lose weight if you were eating a lot of sugar and now you’re eating monk fruit instead,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. “But it’s not as if monk fruit causes weight loss.” Also, foods that use monk fruit as a sweetener instead of sugar may still be high in fat and calories.
“Monk fruit extracts help you cut carbs and sugar, so maybe that helps you lose weight in that moment. But the long-term payoff doesn’t seem to be there. That’s why it’s not necessarily better than sugar,” Cassetty says.
“Monk fruit extract hasn’t been studied to the same degree as other alternative sweeteners, but the data on alternative sweeteners is really mixed,” Cassetty says. The sweetener has been deemed safe by the FDA, and does not seem to cause the side effects you might see from sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and mannitol, which can cause bloating, stomachaches, and diarrhea in some people.
While monk fruit itself has been used for hundreds of years in Chinese culture and medicine without reported harmful effects, a study published in February 2023 in Nature Journal raised the alarm about commercial monk fruit products, which are often made with erythritol, a sugar alcohol. For people with existing risk factors for heart disease, including diabetes, high levels of erythritol in their blood nearly doubled the odds of experiencing a heart attack or stroke, according to the study.
“I would say including a little bit occasionally in your diet is okay, but if you’re relying on heavily sweetened things, that’s an opportunity to look at controlling your sweet tooth a little bit,” says Cassetty.
While monk fruit is becoming more widely available, it can be somewhat pricey. Additionally, it is possible to be allergic to monk fruit. If that occurs, you might notice hives, a rash, difficulty breathing, a rapid or weak pulse, dizziness, a swollen tongue, stomach pain, vomiting, or wheezing.
How to Use Monk Fruit in Recipes
Even though monk fruit is as much as 250 times sweeter than sugar, according to the FDA, you can buy monk fruit extract that has been formulated for use in baking. Refer to the package for directions on how much to use in place of sugar. “Just be aware of what you’re buying,” Cassetty says. You might see other ingredients added to the monk fruit extract, such as erythritol or sugar, which may have potential risks, as previously mentioned.
If you’re curious about experimenting with monk fruit extract in the kitchen, the following recipes can help you get started:
Among sugar substitutes, monk fruit extract stands out as a natural carb-free, calorie-free sugar choice that has been used for centuries. That said, it has not been studied thoroughly, and additional rigorous research is needed to determine any potential benefits or long term effects of consuming it. Monk fruit extract is commercially most available in processed forms, as well, and often mixed with other, less desirable ingredients, so be sure to read package labels to know what you are ingesting, and speak with your healthcare provider if you have any existing health conditions before making big dietary changes. Used occasionally, monk fruit can be a healthy way to satisfy a sweet tooth.
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