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Monk Fruit: The Healthiest Sweetener Yet?

Posted by Deborah Graefer, L.Ac., MTOM on

Sugar is the sweet, silent killer linked to many chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, heart diseases, cancer, and many more. And though it is still a multi-billion-dollar commodity, more and more people are now becoming aware of its negative effects; thus, the rise of alternative sweeteners.

Some alternative products in the market today such as agave nectar, aspartame, or sucralose claim to be better and healthier than sugar. However, these common substitutes may be wolves in sheep’s clothing. For example, aspartame used in diet sodas, has been linked to some symptoms like malaise, headache, or abdominal pain. Some studies show that it can be toxic when mixed with some common food coloring. Agave nectar may be good if it is pure and natural but in reality, those commercially available agave are often made up of at least 70% fructose. Lastly, sucralose (better known as the brands Splenda, Sukrana, Candys, or Nevella) is processed using chlorine and is a source of water pollution.

Real, natural sweeteners are therefore the way to go!

Raw honey, stevia, and molasses are the popular healthy replacements. These three all have their own benefits supported by science and research. But there is another less known natural sweetener that may even be better than them – the monk fruit aka Luo Han Guo.

What is Monk Fruit?

Luo Han Guo is a small, round fruit widely planted in the southern regions of Southern China. This herb with the scientific name, Siraitia grosvenorii is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family. Its Chinese and English names were coined after the Buddhist monks (called luohan) who grew the plant many centuries ago.

Its flesh can be eaten fresh but it is often sold dry because it is difficult to store. Dried monk fruits are usually oven-dried and then used to make tea or soup.

It has been used as a therapeutic herb in traditional Chinese medicine as far back as the 13 th century. Monk fruit was used to moisten lungs, clear heat, and stop cough. It was also used for gastrointestinal relief as it is believed to moisten the intestines, thus regulating bowel movement and relieving constipation. 

Despite its use for hundreds of years, it was only in the last two decades that the monk fruit has been commercially used as a sweetener. To get the fruit extract, monk fruit is crushed after the skin and seeds have been removed. Extracts can also be derived from dried monk fruits. Raw monk fruit concentrate needs further processing for longer storage and to eliminate many additional flavors. Before its commercial extraction and manufacturing was patented by Procter & Gamble in 1995, inferior methods were used to homogenize, treat, and then pasteurize the monk fruit extract. When the patent expired in 2013, many other companies then used more sophisticated processes to produce monk fruit sweeteners in liquid, granule, and powder forms.

Monk fruit sweeteners are said to be as much as 250 times sweeter than table sugar without the high carbs that come with the sugar. It has zero calories and zero carbs. In the US, it has been classified as “generally classified as safe” or GRAS by the FDA. Even diabetics and pregnant women can consume monk fruit sweeteners because they do not raise blood glucose levels. Unlike most fruits, what makes this one so sweet is the abundance of specific antioxidants called mogrosides.

What are the Components of Monk Fruit?

What makes monk fruit a healthy alternative sugar are its natural components. Although more research is needed to find out the exact nutritional breakdown of the fruit, we already know that it is packed with the following:

  • Mogrocides 1 to 5
  • Kaempferol
  • Cucurbitacins
  • Triterpene glycosides

The monk fruit also contains vitamin C and polysaccharide fibers.

5 Health Benefits of Monk Fruit

    1. Anti-inflammatory

    2. Antioxidant

    3. Anti-tumorigenic and anti-fibrotic

    4. Analgesic

    5. Anti-obesity

Anti-inflammatory

The monk fruit is probably most famous for its anti-inflammatory effects. Long before science has broken down its components and explained its potency, practitioners of Chinese medicine have already been using it as a natural anti-inflammatory and antihistamine to cure sore throat, relieve digestive distress, and to cool heat stroke. Completely opposite of sugar, which triggers or worsens inflammation, monk fruit initiates a response against inflammation through the action of mogrocides and cucurbitacin. Mogrocides down-regulate the expressions of inflammatory genes and up-regulate inflammation protective genes. Cucurbitacin also inhibits the action of COX-2 enzymes and reactive nitrogen species.

Antioxidant

Aside from fighting inflammation, mogrocides are also effective against oxidative stress as they reduce intracellular reactive oxygen species and regulate the expression of genes involved in glucose metabolism. Kaempferol found in monk fruit also serves as an effective antioxidant because it scavenges superoxide anion, hypochlorous acid, chloramine and nitric oxide in the body. Monk fruit’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant abilities are probably the reason why it is called the fruit of longevity. These properties boost the immune system, keeping infections and illnesses at bay.

Anti-tumorigenic and anti-fibrotic

You probably have heard about the belief that “sugar feeds cancer”. And though it is a highly controversial claim which still needs to be qualified, there is great truth to it. That’s another compelling reason to choose monk fruit over other available sweeteners. The cucurbitacin and triterpene glycoside available in the fruit exhibits potent anti-cancer, anti-tumorigenic, and anti-fibrotic properties. Numerous studies have already proven that cucurbitacin helps prevent the migration and invasion of metastatic cancer cells. Triterpene glycoside, on the other hand, slows down apoptosis or cell death while inhibiting cell proliferation, colony formation, and tumor invasion.

Analgesic

Cucurbitacin and flavonioids like kaempferol, both found in monk fruit, are natural analgesics which have antinociception properties allowing for the blockage or reduction of painful stimulus transmitted to sensory neurons. There have also been studies associating cucurbitacin to faster wound healing.

Anti-obesity

Sugar is the most common culprit of obesity. Consumption of calorie-sweetened beverage and processed food with refined sugar plays a role in increasing body weight, developing metabolic syndromes, sleep disorders, fatty liver disease, and other health conditions. Replacing sugar with luo han guo is a good start in changing the sweet diet. Not only does it help regulate blood sugar levels, it also helps counter adipose tissue inflammation and other inflammation- related conditions associated with obesity.

Why don’t we just all use monk fruit for sweetening then?

1.It’s hard to find.

This is probably the reason why the monk fruit has not been as popular as it should be, despite all its benefits. The monk fruit is challenging to grow, harvest, and dry. Processing and importing the fruit has also not been easy, making monk fruits sweeteners a little bit more expensive than their natural contemporaries. Good thing is that a number of monk fruits sweetener brands are now available in Amazon. Accessibility is no longer a problem.

2.Some may be allergic to monk fruit

People who have allergies with produce from the Cucurbitaceae family like squash, watermelon, cucumber, and zucchini, may have issues with the monk fruit too.

3.Some say there is an aftertaste

As a raw and fresh fruit, luo han guo is said to have a sulfuric taste. And even after processing, some say that it still has a distinct, slightly bitter, aftertaste. Taste is relative. And since monk fruit is unknown to many, it may take a little longer to get accustomed to it. I have products in which the monk fruit has been overdone and found the aftertaste to be somewhat similar to stevia, but if when I sweeten something myself, aiming for less sweet I don’t notice an aftertaste at all.

Which monk fruit sweetener should I get?

Despite the benefits of the monk fruit in general, not all monk fruits sweeteners are created equal. As you try to buy your own bottle, watch out for maltodextrin. This powder derived from starch is often used as a thickener or preservative in processed goods. Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide (a form of sugar) which can spike blood sugar counteracting the good effects of monk fruit. It also has no nutritional value and may cause allergic reactions since it is often made from corn, wheat, or potato starch.

Out of the many brands available in the market, we recommend the Pure Monk ( Monk Fruit ) 100 Servings 3.5 oz Paleo Sugar Free Sweetener. It is maltodextrin-free, made of 25% mogroside 5, with no additives. There may be other options, if you’re in the mood for exploring. Just remember to read your labels and make sure that you get the most benefits from this super sweetener.


A Taste of Passion - A Fabulous Dessert Using Monk Fruit


1 can of thick coconut cream
2 ripe passion fruit or 4 large ripe strawberries
1/8 tsp monk fruit
Berries

When looking for a can of coconut cream choose one with as little liquid as you can find. When you shake the can you should hear no liquid. And buy organic with as little additives as possible. Guar gum is common and does work, if the cream is thick, but otherwise tends to hinder the whip.

Chill the can of coconut cream in the refrigerator for 5-12 hours. If you do find to find a really thick can, 2 hours is enough. Chill the mixing bowl as well. You may want to try Natural Value Organic Coconut Milk, 13.5 Ounce Cans (Pack of 12) or you can also get Native Forest Organic Premium Coconut Cream, Unsweetened, 5.4 Ounce (Pack of 12)


Scoop the pulp of the passion fruit into the bowl, add the monk fruit and whip to soft peaks. I left the seeds in. They can, of course, be removed with some effort.

Keep covered in the refrigerator until just before serving.
Scoop 1-2 Tablespoons into each dish and sprinkle with berries.

Note: Although coconut is generally a fat that people with impaired fat digestion can handle, I don't recommend you try this recipe until you are symptom-free. And, as with all indulgences, minimalism is the key!




References:

Parveen, Z., Deng, Y., Saeed, M. K., Dai, R., Ahamad, W., & Yu, Y. H. (2007). Antiinflammatory and analgesic activities of Thesium chinense Turcz extracts and its major flavonoids, kaempferol and kaempferol-3-O-glucoside. Yakugaku Zasshi, 127(8), 1275-1279.

Oridupa, O. A., Saba, A. B., Adesanwo, J. K., & Oyebanji, B. O. (2013). Anti-inflammatory and analgesic activity of a cucurbitacin isolated from Lagenaria breviflora Roberty fruit. African journal of medicine and medical sciences, 42(3), 223-230.

Aminin, D. L., Menchinskaya, E. S., Pisliagin, E. A., Silchenko, A. S., Avilov, S. A., & Kalinin, V. I. (2015). Anticancer activity of sea cucumber triterpene glycosides. Marine drugs , 13(3), 1202-1223.

Shukla, S., Sinha, S., Khan, S., Kumar, S., Singh, K., Mita, K.,…Meeran, S.M. (2016) Cucurbitacin B inhibits the stemness and metastatic abilities of NSCLC via downregulation of canonical Wnt/β-catenin signaling axis. Scientific Reports volume 6, Article number: 21860.

Alghasham, A. A. (2013). Cucurbitacins–a promising target for cancer therapy. International journal of health sciences , 7(1), 77.

Di, R., Huang, M. T., & Ho, C. T. (2011). Anti-inflammatory activities of mogrosides from Momordica grosvenori in murine macrophages and a murine ear edema model. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry , 59(13), 7474-7481.

Abdelwahab, S. I., Hassan, L. E. A., Sirat, H. M., Yagi, S. M. A., Koko, W. S., Mohan, S., ... & Rais, M. M. (2011). Anti-inflammatory activities of cucurbitacin E isolated from Citrullus lanatus var. citroides: role of reactive nitrogen species and cyclooxygenase enzyme inhibition. Fitoterapia, 82(8), 1190-1197.

Xu, Q., Chen, S. Y., Deng, L. D., Feng, L. P., Huang, L. Z., & Yu, R. R. (2013). Antioxidant effect of mogrosides against oxidative stress induced by palmitic acid in mouse insulinoma NIT-1 cells. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research , 46(11), 949-955.

Vellosa, José Carlos Rebuglio, Regasini, Luis O., Khalil, Najeh Maissar, Bolzani, Vanderlan da Silva, Khalil, Omar A. K., Manente, Francine Alessandra, Pasquini Netto, Harli, & Oliveira, Olga M. M. de Faria. (2011). Antioxidant and cytotoxic studies for kaempferol, quercetin and isoquercitrin. Eclética Química, 36(2), 07-20. https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S0100-4670201100020000...


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