Monk Fruit Sweetener Benefits and Drawbacks, According to Dietitians
If you're interested in sugar substitutes — or simply have a sweet tooth — you've likely heard of monk fruit sweetener. The natural, zero-calorie, and sugar-free sweetener has been around for centuries, yet it only recently gained popularity in the mainstream food scene. Curious? Read on for an overview of monk fruit sweetener nutrition and how to use the ingredient.
What Is Monk Fruit Sweetener?
First, some background on monk fruit: Also known as luo han guo, monk fruit is a plant native to China that produces a melon-like fruit that's been used as food and traditional medicine for hundreds of years, according to an article in Scientific Reports. It's part of the gourd family, which also includes squash, cucumber, watermelon, and pumpkin.
The fruit contains compounds called mogrosides, according to Amy Shapiro, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a registered dietitian and founder of Real Nutrition. Monk fruit sweetener is basically a concentrated form of these mogrosides, which are extremely sweet. In fact, mogrosides are so sweet that monk fruit sweetener is 100 to 250 times sweeter (!!) than regular white sugar, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Despite their intense sweetness, however, mogrosides are *not* sugar (carbohydrate) molecules. They are non-nutritive, meaning they do not contain any calories, according to Oregon State University.
Now, whole monk fruit (aka the melon-esque edible mentioned above) also contains glucose and fructose, which are calorie-containing sugar molecules. But these sugars aren't found in monk fruit sweetener. During processing, manufacturers crush monk fruits to release the juices. Next, they filter the liquid and extract mogrosides — but not glucose and fructose — from the juice, creating a final product that's a zero-calorie, sugar-free sweetener, according to Shapiro.
What Are the Perks of Monk Fruit Sweetener?
Looking to limit your intake of white sugar? Then monk fruit sweetener might be a smart staple to keep in your pantry. And this is especially true if you have blood glucose concerns, such as diabetes, since the sweetener is sugar-free and as such, won't increase your blood glucose levels. (The same can be said about allulose, another low-cal sweetener sweeping the supermarket.) Similarly, monk fruit sweetener may be ideal if you want or need to reduce your daily calorie intake as, again, it doesn't contain any cals.
Comparatively, standard white sugar holds about 16 calories per teaspoon, shares Shapiro. And it can cause rapid spikes in blood glucose levels, which can be particularly detrimental for those with diabetes. (FTR, frequent spikes in blood sugar can also negatively impact those without the condition, as they can increase the risk of developing diseases, such as heart disease and, yup, diabetes, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health).
Another plus of monk fruit sweetener is that it's not associated with digestive side effects, says registered dietitian Roxana Ehsani, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D.N. Here's why that's noteworthy: Many sugar substitutes are made of sugar alcohols, such as erythritol or sorbitol, which can cause unpleasant side effects (e.g. bloating, gas, or diarrhea) in some people. Monk fruit sweetener, on the other hand, hasn't been shown to bring on these symptoms, says Ehsani, thereby making it an ideal sugar substitute for those with sensitive guts. (Looking at you, folks with IBS.)
But wait, there's more: The mogrosides in monk fruit are also antioxidants, says Shapiro. This means they have the ability to scavenge free radicals, harmful molecules that — when present in excess — can cause oxidative stress. Over time, oxidative stress can contribute to the development of chronic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. As for plain old white sugar? When it's consumed in excess, it has the opposite effect, according to Shapiro. High sugar intake can spur oxidative stress, ultimately increasing the risk of chronic disease.
What Are the Downsides of Monk Fruit Sweetener?
Ironically, one of the top perks of monk fruit sweetener is also a drawback. Since it's so darn sweet, the ingredient can easily make a recipe too, well, sweet. With that in mind, it's best to use a small amount to start and increase as needed based on your taste.
Also, some manufacturers might add other ingredients to monk fruit sugar to tone down its sweetness, adds Ehsani. This may include tapioca fiber (a starch), chicory root (a type of fiber), cellulose gum (a thickening agent), and stevia (another sugar substitute). They might also add erythritol " to remove any aftertaste," says Ehsani. Some people find monk fruit sweetener to leave a bitter aftertaste in their mouths, although it's relatively mild, she explains. Still, if you're concerned about sugar alcohols or any of the other ingredients, these additions can be a bummer.
In the realm of health, "there are no reported negative side effects [associated] with monk fruit," says Shapiro. The exception is if you have an overactive pancreas (aka hyperinsulinemia). In this case, eating monk fruit might increase insulin production, which might mess with your blood glucose levels, says Shapiro. (Insulin, which is made by the pancreas, is a hormone that shuttles glucose from the blood and into cells.) If you have pancreatic concerns, talk to your doc before adding monk fruit sugar to your rotation.
Finally, monk fruit sweetener can be hard to find, so you might have to buy it at a specialty health food store, explains Ehsani. It's also usually more expensive than other sugar substitutes, and definitely pricier than typical white sugar. (Related: 5 Lessons I Learned from Doing a Sugar-Free Diet for 10 Days)
How to Use Monk Fruit Sweetener
Now that you know all about monk fruit sweetener nutrition, you're probably eager to use it in recipes. Luckily, there are different forms of monk fruit sweetener, and each works best in different types of food, says Traci Weintraub, chef and founder of Gracefully Fed, a Los Angeles-based meal delivery service.
Types of Monk Fruit Sweetener
First up is granulated monk fruit sweetener, which looks a lot like granulated white sugar and can also be used in similar ways. But remember, monk fruit sweetener is very sweet, so a 1:1 swap might make your food more saccharine than you intended. Instead, to start, use 1/3 cup granulated monk fruit for every 1 cup white sugar, suggests Weintraub. From there, you can experiment with your specific recipe to find the right amount.
There's also powdered and brown monk fruit sweetener, which are meant to be used in place of — you guessed it — powdered and brown sugars. Brown monk fruit sweetener usually gets its brownish hue from darker-colored mogrosides, according to Lakanto, a company that produces monk fruit sweeteners. Monk fruit sweetener is also available as liquid drops or maple-flavored syrup, which are typically made with a water base. These forms work best in recipes that call for liquid sweeteners, such as mousses and raw desserts, shares Weintraub.
Ways to Use Monk Fruit Sweetener
Good news, bakers: You can totally use monk fruit sweetener in your concoctions. What's more, the ingredient will yield "delicious baked goods with comparable tastes, textures, and color," assuming you don't use too much, says Susan Greeley, M.S., R.D.N., a registered dietitian and chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education. However, as with all ingredient substitutions, there are several things to keep in mind. It's important to use a monk fruit sweetener that coincides with the type found in your original recipe, according to Greeley. "For instance, do not use granulated monk fruit sweetener in recipes that call for powdered sugar," explains Weintraub. Similarly, if you'd like to substitute monk fruit for maple syrup or honey in a recipe, be sure to use the syrup form, she adds.
Beyond baking, there are plenty of uses for monk fruit sugar, says Weintraub. For example, "you can sprinkle it over some fresh fruit for a healthy dessert," she suggests. It's also excellent for sweetening up salad dressings, soups, oatmeal, or your morning tea or coffee, adds Weintraub. Regardless of the food, always start with the smallest possible amount. The sweet spot (pun intended) will depend on many factors, including your recipe, preferences, and specific form of monk fruit sweetener.
Wary about the aftertaste? Rest assured, "if you use a teaspoon in a cup of coffee or tea, you may not even notice it," says Ehsani. Likewise, if you're using it in a recipe, the other ingredients will likely mask the aftertaste. Again, to be safe, avoid adding too much and don't be afraid to experiment.