Gaining popularity in recent years for its use as a no-calorie sweetener, monk fruit is a small, green melon-looking gourd. This little lemon-sized fruit grows on a vine in the sub-tropical mountains of the south of China. The name derives itself from the legend that Buddhist monks were the first people known to grow and eat this fruit. Although fairly new on the market in the western world, monk fruit has a long history of use in traditional eastern medicine for treatment of cough, inflammation and other ailments.
No matter how hard you look, you’re not going to find monk fruit in your local produce section. It isn’t eaten fresh, it has a tendency to ferment quickly after harvest, and it is only grown in China. In China, monk fruit may be dried and used to prepare herbal remedies and teas. However, even dried monk fruit is not found outside of Asian markets.
The only version of monk fruit you’re likely to find in the western world is in the form of a sweetener. Monk fruit extract, also called Lo Han Guo extract, is produced from the pulp of the fruit. This extract is approximately 200 times sweeter than table sugar, but has no calories or carbs.
And the most important factor for people with diabetes? Monk fruit extract doesn’t raise blood glucose levels.
What’s Different about Monk Fruit?
The sweet taste of monk fruit extract belies the fact that it contains no sugars. Instead, mogrosides are the natural compounds that can be thanked for providing monk fruit with its sweetness. The body metabolizes these antioxidants in a way that does not spike the blood sugar level. Not only that, but some researchers believe antioxidants are also healthy for fighting free-radicals, lowering obesity risk, reducing inflammation, and even fighting fatigue.
A Few Drawbacks
Since it sounds absolutely perfect, you may be wondering why it has been slow in growth on the market. First of all, only a few companies are actually producing sweeteners made from monk fruit extract, probably because is rather expensive to grow and difficult to harvest.
Not only is it expensive, but Chinese law currently prevents the fruit and its genetic material from being exported. Obviously, this severely limits the ability for monk fruit to hit the market on a grand scale.
While monk fruit is natural, and so far no reports have been received by the FDA of any negative effects from its ingestion, it has not been tested extensively. Continued studies are need to prove that its use is safe over the long haul. Still, it has no known side effects and, since 2010, the FDA has categorized it as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe).
Just like any food, monk fruit may carry a slight risk of allergic reaction. It should be avoided by anyone who has a known allergy to members of the gourd family, such as squash, pumpkin, cucumbers, and any type of melon.
How Much Monk Fruit Is Safe to Use?
Because sufficient research has not been performed, no standard Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) has been set. However, it is estimated that it is safe to consume approximately 6.8mg/kg of body weight each day. It is important to remember than even no-sugar substitutes can create sugar cravings that can produce a negative impact on a healthy diet.
How Does It Taste?
Basically tasteless, some people do not prefer monk fruit’s aftertaste. This is a fairly common response to many natural sweeteners and is fairly relative, depending on the person who is using it. That said, it is often thought to be less bitter and more tolerable than certain artificial sweeteners.
Where to Get Monk Fruit Sweetener
As with most sweetener substitutes, monk fruit is a pricier alternative to sugar and it may be more difficult to locate than the standard substitutes. It is available in the raw, as a baking substitute, in white or ‘golden’, and in products such as maple flavored syrup.
A limited number of brands of monk fruit sweetener are available, including: Health Garden Monk Fruit Sweetener, Lakanto Monk Fruit Sweetener, Skinnygirl Monk Fruit Extract Liquid Sweetener, and Monk Fruit in the Raw. These brands can be found in various local health food stores as well as in online shops.
In addition to adding it to hot beverages such as coffee and tea, monk fruit also mixes well into smoothies, yogurt, hot cereals, cold drinks, sauces, and more. Not only that, it is stable when exposed to heat, which means it can be used as an ingredient in baking.
Using small amounts of monk fruit may be an effective way to keep your blood glucose levels down while still enjoying the occasional sweet treat. As with all sweeteners, moderation is key to avoiding cravings and keeping balance in a diabetes-friendly diet. And, of course, it’s just a good idea to have a conversation with your doctor about the use of monk fruit as a part of your diet.