Q: I’ve started seeing “monk fruit” listed on some lower-calorie foods I’m eating. What is this and how healthy (or unhealthy) is it?
A: Monk fruit extract is gaining popularity as a zero-calorie sweetener. It is being used in diet foods as well as being sold on its own as a sugar replacement under the name Nectresse.
Indigenous to southern China and northern Thailand, a monk fruit looks a little like a melon but is technically a gourd. The name comes from the fact that monks initially harvested it 800 years ago.
Unlike most fruits, monk fruit isn’t sweet due to natural sugars. Instead it contains a unique type of antioxidant called mogroside that provides a level of sweetness upwards of 200 to 500 times greater than table sugar. This compound may do more than add a sugary taste, though: Researchers are looking into high doses of mogrosides in the treatment of cancer and diabetes, with one animal study showing that mogrosides improved fasting blood sugar levels in addition to increasing “good” HDL cholesterol.
RELATED: The Best Sugar Alternatives
There is nothing about monk fruit extract that I have seen which would suggest that it is unhealthy or has any negative side effects. However, monk fruit extract has not been approved for use by the FDA for very long: It only received GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status for use as a sweetener in 2009, so it does not have a long track record of use in America as a sweetener, and rigorous toxicity testing in humans has not been done. This does not mean that it is dangerous—no research to date suggests that it is—I just want you to know that human research on it is very limited at this point.
If you are looking for a natural zero-calorie sweetener, don’t respond well to xylitol (it can cause GI upset in some people), and don’t like the taste of stevia, then monk fruit extract is something for you to try. Just keep in mind that like stevia, xylitol, and sucralose, monk fruit extract does not taste exactly like sugar, so you’ll need to taste for yourself if it is a suitable replacement for you.