Most of us probably couldn’t pick out a monk fruit in the produce aisle, and truth be told, it’s not likely to catch your attention amidst luscious lemons, colorful apples, and vibrant oranges. But the monk fruit is getting a great deal of attention these days from health-conscious foodies, sugar-free devotees, and those in the diabetes community.
Monk fruit, or lo han guo, is a small green melon native to southern China and named after the monks who first cultivated it centuries ago. The health benefits of the fruit have been well-known in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for decades, but its sweet little secret is finally making it into the wellness mainstream.
What’s so great about monk fruit?
Monk fruit sweetener is made from extract derived from dried fruit. The extract is 150-250 times sweeter than table sugar, has zero calories and carbs, and does not raise blood glucose levels.
Most nonnutritive sweeteners can cause side effects like gas, bloating, or allergic reactions. And some artificial sweeteners like Equal and Splenda are controversial. In the case of monk fruit sweeteners, there are no known side effects.
The Food and Drug Administration has deemed monk fruit “generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” for everyone, including pregnant women and children. Even so, because monk fruit is relatively new to the mass market, there are no scientific studies on the effects of long-term use.
Health benefits of monk fruit
1. Safe for diabetes
Monk fruit gets its sweetness from natural compounds called mogrosides. It’s generally safe for those with diabetes because it doesn’t increase blood sugars. Even so, foods and drinks sweetened with monk fruit (as well as some monk fruit sweetener blends) may include added sugars and other ingredients that increase carb and calorie counts or affect insulin sensitivity. Don’t assume all monk fruit products are carb- and sugar-free.
2. Promotes weight loss
Monk fruit has no calories, carbs, or fat, so it may be a great option for anyone watching their waistline. You can save substantial calories and carbs by simply substituting monk fruit sweetener for table sugar throughout your day. Again, make sure you consume monk fruit products that don’t include added sugars. And save treats made with monk fruit for special occasions because many still include diet-busting ingredients like chocolate or butter.
3. Anti-inflammatory properties
According to a 2011 study, monk fruit has been used in TCM for centuries to make hot drinks that relieve sore throats and reduce phlegm. The fruit’s mogrosides are said to be anti-inflammatory, and may help prevent cancer and keep blood sugar levels stable.
The downsides of monk fruit
Along with its many benefits, monk fruit has a few drawbacks.
Don’t go running to your local Trader Joe’s hoping to load up on fresh monk fruit. It’s almost impossible to find unless you visit a region where it’s grown. Even then, it’s rarely eaten fresh since it ferments and grows rancid quickly after it’s harvested. Dried monk fruit may be used to prepare tea and herbal remedies, but it’s also hard to find. Some Asian markets carry imported dried monk fruit.
Monk fruit is challenging to grow, harvest, and dry. It’s also expensive to import and process. This makes monk fruit sweetener more pricey than other nonnutritive sweeteners. It’s also why there are fewer monk fruit sweetener options on your local supermarket shelves.
In addition, some people are turned off by the aftertaste of monk fruit. Still, taste is relative. Many find the taste pleasant and less bitter than other sweeteners, especially artificial ones such as saccharin and aspartame.
Monk fruit allergies
Monk fruit allergies are rare, but there’s a risk of allergic reaction with anything you consume. Monk fruit is a member of the Curcurbitaceae family (also known as the gourd family), which includes pumpkin, squash, cucumbers, and melons. Your risk of monk fruit allergy is higher if you’re allergic to other gourds. Signs of allergic reaction may include:
- hives or rash
- difficulty breathing
- rapid or weak pulse
- swollen tongue
- stomach pain or vomiting
Ways to use monk fruit
You can use monk fruit sweeteners to sweeten almost anything, including:
- hot tea, iced tea, or lemonade
- salad dressings
- oatmeal or other hot cereals
Monk fruit sweeteners are heat-stable and safe to use in baked goods. Some brands, like Monk Fruit In The Raw Bakers Bag, also contain dextrose to cut the sweetness. These blends can be substituted for sugar, cup for cup in recipes. You may need to experiment to see if you need more or less to satisfy your taste buds. Here are a few recipes to get you started.
Carrot orange bread
If you’re a fan of carrot cake, you’ll love this healthy and delicious quick bread comprised of almond flour, monk fruit sweetener, shredded carrots, spices, and fresh orange juice. Get the recipe.
Monk fruit chocolate brownies
This is as close to healthy as a decadent brownie is likely to get. The chocolate base is sweetened with monk fruit and the frosting is filled with surprising ingredients like avocado, dates, and yogurt. Get the recipe.
Sugar-free caramelized almonds
Like the combination of sweet and salty? Make these smoky, salted almonds coated with a blend of monk fruit sweetener, cinnamon, and vanilla. Get the recipe.
Cream cheese frosting
This updated recipe offers a fresh spin on a classic. It’s great for cupcakes, cakes, and quick breads, or even as a yummy fruit dip. Combine monk fruit sweetener, cream cheese, butter, and vanilla for a sweet treat. Get the recipe.
More research is needed to explore the full health impacts of monk fruit. Still, it seems to be a good choice for those with diabetes and anyone who wants to limit dietary sugar. There are many claims about the fruit’s ability to heal cancer and other diseases, but research is not yet in place to back them up. Recent research reveals that many nonnutritive sweeteners impact gut bacteria and the lining of the intestines.
Bottom line: It’s still unclear at this time how processing monk fruit extract into a nonnutritive sweetener may impact your health. If you’re interested in substituting monk fruit for sugar in some of your favorite recipes or in your coffee in the morning, try it! Just be sure to discuss your health concerns about sugar substitutes with your doctor first.