What Is Monk Fruit Sweetener? The No-Calorie Sugar Substitute

You’ve probably heard – somewhere – the phrase “Better Living Through Chemistry.” It’s been used in movies, songs, and even in the drug world. The phrase is a variation on a slogan (“Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry”) used throughout the mid 20th century by the huge DuPont chemical company.

During that period, most people really believed blindly in the power of chemistry to improve lives – in nearly every way imaginable. 

So when the artificial sweetener cyclamate became popular in the 1950s, no one questioned its safety. After all, it tasted a lot better than saccharin, and it was discovered by a chemistry student! (Fun fact: the student was actually working on a medication in the lab, and discovered cyclamate by accident when he licked his finger and realized it was sweet.)

Cyclamate was banned in America in 1969 when it was discovered to cause cancer in rats. (Fun fact #2: It turns out that rats were an anomaly, and the sweetener didn’t cause cancer in humans; even so, cyclamate is still illegal in the U.S., even though it’s legal in nearly every other country including Canada and Mexico.)

Other artificial sweeteners followed, including aspartame and sucralose. (Fun fact #3: aspartame was also discovered accidentally when a scientist licked his fingers.) Despite health concerns, each of those artificial sweeteners was embraced by the market and in turn by consumers desperate for weight loss solutions because…you guessed it…chemistry!

We’re now well into the 21st century. Most people have finally realized there are natural alternatives to sugar. Some are good. Some are better. And some are terrific.

Monk fruit sweetener is one of the latest entries in that last group. It’s extracted from a fruit that’s native to Southeast Asia. It’s completely natural. Most importantly, it’s sweet, healthy and safe.

Let’s learn more about it. 

To do that, it’s important to first understand what makes monk fruit sweetener so different than the ones that have come before.

The Hunt for Sugar Substitutes

Sucrose, which we usually think of as granulated sugar, table sugar or “regular” sugar, is an amazing substance. It’s a terrific “fast energy” source because it’s easily converted to glucose, the fuel needed by the brain and body. It’s cheap, it’s easy to measure and use, it dissolves quickly, and it tastes wonderful.

Unfortunately, it’s also way too easy to consume way too much sucrose – since it’s so prevalent in many of the foods we eat. And we probably don’t have to tell you why that’s a bad idea. Sugar contains virtually no nutrients and lots of empty calories. Overindulging can contribute to (or cause) weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular issues. And the resulting spikes and drops in blood sugar levels can also cause undesirable mood swings and cravings.

Artificial Sweeteners

The very real concerns about sugar have fueled a continuing search for so-called non-nutritive sweeteners (meaning they contain no nutrients) to be used as alternatives. As we’ve mentioned, scientists have worked over the last century to create artificial sugar substitutes. Saccharin (often sold under the brand name Sweet’N Low), cyclamate, aspartame (Equal) and sucralose (Splenda) are the best-known low-calorie and no-calorie sweeteners they’ve developed; most are still used today as packaged sweeteners and in all sorts of sugar-free products.

However, these sweeteners have been, at various times, suspected of causing potential health issues. Saccharin was banned for a few years way back in the early 20th century, and a ban proposed much later was never implemented. Cyclamate has been banned for decades. And there are studies questioning the safety of other artificial sweeteners, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently classifies them as GRAS (generally recognized as safe).

In any event, all of those sweeteners obviously contain artificial ingredients, which many consumers would prefer not to ingest. There are also studies showing potential links between the use of artificial sweeteners and weight gain, heart disease, glucose intolerance and gut problems.

Understandably, many people have looked for alternatives to both sugar and artificial sweeteners. That search has led to a surge of interest in natural sweeteners other than table sugar.

Natural Caloric Sweeteners

Naturally-sweet foods like molasses, maple syrup, and sugars made from fruits like coconut have been available, and used, for decades or centuries. Some who have decided to avoid or limit their consumption of table sugar have turned to them as healthier alternatives.

These natural sweetening agents aren’t necessarily a bad choice. They are more nutritious than sugar and have a lower glycemic index, meaning they’re better for diabetics or those trying to control their blood sugar. But they definitely have their drawbacks, too. They contain more calories than sucrose, and overconsumption can lead to the same types of problems (obesity and diabetes, for example) that sugar is known for.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols aren’t really alcohol at all, because they don’t contain ethanol. Some are sweet carbohydrates which are naturally present in some vegetables and fruit, and others are created when sugars like glucose or maltose are fermented. The most common examples are erythritol, xylitol, maltitol and sorbitol; all are commonly found in low-calorie processed foods.

Sugar alcohols contain calories because they’re carbs, but notably, they have fewer calories than table sugar. Their glycemic index is generally low (some sugar alcohols, like erythritol, have a GI of zero), so they’re a good choice for diabetics or those with metabolic syndrome. As a side benefit, they don’t cause the tooth decays and cavities that sugar is known for.

These sweeteners may seem like the perfect alternative to sugar, but there are two reasons why they’re not. We’ve already mentioned one: they’re not calorie-free. The other issue is their side effects, particularly their impact on digestion. Most sugar alcohols can cause bloating, gas and diarrhea, especially when consumed regularly. Erythritol and xylitol are less problematic, but may still cause problems for those with IBS, or other gut sensitivities or diseases.

Natural Zero-Calorie Sweeteners

All-natural? Check.
No carbs? Check.
Zero calories? Check.
Glycemic index of zero? Check.

What’s not to like?

The latest class of sugar substitutes seems almost perfect. They’re sourced from plants or fruit, the FDA says they’re safe, they’re fine for diabetics and even for those on keto diets.

The first of these sweeteners to gain popularity was stevia, but monk fruit extract is quickly gaining ground.

Let’s find out why.

Monk Fruit Sweetener: Where Does It Come From?

Many fruits that we’ve never heard of grow all over the world. Monk fruit is one of them.

This small, round fruit that looks like a melon is native to remote areas of southern China and Thailand. It’s a member of the gourd family, and it’s known in Asia as luo han guo; “guo” means fruit, and “luo han” is the sect of Buddhist monks who harvested the fruit and used it for its health benefits. It was used primarily as a treatment for congestion and coughs.

The first documented use of monk fruit was some 900 years ago. However, it wasn’t widely used in traditional Chinese medicine until more recently, because it only grew in the mountains of Guilin and most healers weren’t familiar with it. And it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the fruit was “discovered” by Western explorers.

Even now, you won’t see raw monk fruit in your local grocery store or whole foods market. That’s because it has an extremely short shelf life, fermenting and turning rancid shortly after it’s been picked. The only place you may see the actual fruit, in dried form, is in Asian markets where it’s sold to be used in making tea.

Monk fruit’s suitability for modern use only became apparent fairly recently. That’s when some very smart people realized it could be turned into a nearly-perfect sugar substitute.

Monk Fruit Sweetener: How It’s Made

The monk fruit is extremely sweet, several hundred times sweeter than table sugar. In part, that’s because it contains natural sugars like glucose and fructose. There’s more to it than that, though.

Monk fruit is one of the only plants that contains antioxidant glycosides (simple sugar compounds) known as mogrosides. The most important (and sweetest) of them is called mogroside V. And there are several reasons why mogrosides are important.

First, they’re intensely sweet. Second, when they’re consumed they pass right through the gastrointestinal tract and are broken down in the colon, so there are no nutrients or calories to be absorbed. Finally, they’ve been shown not to increase blood glucose levels.

Processors turn monk fruit into sweetener by crushing it to create juice, and then extracting the mogrosides. That way, there’s no glucose or fructose in the finished product. And when pure monk fruit extract is used as a sweetener, it’s carb- and calorie-free.

Benefits of Using Monk Fruit Sweetener

We’ve established that monk fruit extract is a terrific natural sweetener. You’ve probably guessed that its extreme sweetness means that a little goes a very long way. Oh, and the FDA has designated the sweetener as “generally recognized as safe,” which is the government’s way of saying “go ahead and use it, it’s safe.”

Is that everything you need to know about monk fruit sweetener? Not at all. It also provides important health and wellness benefits.

  • Mogrosides have been found to have impressive antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which prevent or reduce the oxidative stress that can lead to illnesses and diseases like asthma, diabetes, inflammatory joint diseases, heart disease and cancer.
  • Speaking of diabetes, mogroside V apparently encourages the secretion of insulin, and has been shown to lower blood glucose levels and cholesterol levels in preliminary testing with mice. That means it could potentially help prevent or treat type 2 diabetes caused by insulin resistance. 
  • So far, there’s been no rigorous study of whether monk fruit sweetener can help people lose weight; that’s because it’s a relatively new product. Best indications from research into low- and no-calorie sweeteners, though, are that it can help with weight loss when a smart diet-and-exercise program is followed.
  • We’ve mentioned that sugar alcohols can cause issues in the gastrointestinal tract. Is monk fruit sweetener likely to cause similar problems? Apparently not; researchers have found no evidence that it affects gut health in the same way.   

You might think that there are no drawbacks to the use of monk fruit extract as a sweetener. That’s not 100% true. Monk fruit extract is rather expensive, when compared to sugar or artificial sweeteners. Like most non-nutritive sweeteners, it does have a slight aftertaste. And there can be some practical issues caused by the fact that so little extract is needed to equal the sweetness of sugar. We’ll get to those subjects next.

How Monk Fruit Extract Is Sold and Used

Let’s get the “expensive” part out of the way first. Monk fruit only thrives in very specific climates, so it can’t be grown in most parts of the world. In fact, almost all commercial plantations are still in rural China, basically in the middle of nowhere. The monk fruit plants have to be pollinated by hand. And since the fruit goes bad soon after being picked, it has to be processed quickly, in plants built nearby. Only then can it be shipped elsewhere to be packaged or used to sweeten products for sale.

In short, monk fruit extract is very difficult – and expensive – to produce. That’s why it’s pricier than most other sugar substitutes. Remember, however, that a little goes a long way.

The other two issues we mentioned, aftertaste and practicalities, are somewhat intertwined.

End users are accustomed to using a teaspoon of sugar, or a packet of sweetener, in their coffee. Adding that much monk fruit sweetener to a beverage, though, would make it nearly undrinkable.

One way to solve the problem is by purchasing pure monk fruit extract in liquid form and using a medicine dropper, or buying the granulated sweetener in bulk and using tiny spoons (you can actually buy them as well), to put a tiny amount into tea or coffee. If the aftertaste bothers you, though, that solution won’t help.

What about putting monk fruit sweetener into a packet, like they do with sugar or artificial sweeteners? That’s where we really start running into problems.

Some manufacturers do put monk fruit extract into those sugar-sized packets – even though the amount of extract actually required only takes up a tiny portion of the packet. How do they fill up the rest of the space? They use some other type of sweetener that adds bulk.

Most often they use the sugar alcohol erythritol. It’s safe for diabetics, only adds a few calories, and as an added bonus, disguises the monk fruit aftertaste. It may cause stomach distress, though. Sometimes they use stevia, another non-nutritive, calorie-free sugar substitute that’s similar to monk fruit extract and is also OK for diabetics.

Unfortunately, there are producers who make even worse choices. Some add maltodextrin, a sweet food additive with a high glycemic index. Others add molasses or even sugar; they bulk up the sweetener and cover the aftertaste, but are terrible for diabetics – and clearly not what users are looking for when they choose monk fruit extract.

Those looking to buy the pure sweetener in bulk can look for brands like Purisure or Pure Monk Sweet, both sold primarily online. On the other hand, brands like Lankato and Monk Fruit In The Raw add erythritol, and Nectress adds molasses and sugar as well.

Here’s a better approach for most people: purchasing the right pre-sweetened products.

Look for ones which already have the proper amount of pure monk fruit extract added into their formulation, along with ingredients that cover the slight aftertaste. Be sure to check the labels, though, to ensure that there aren’t any other “surprise” ingredients which might add unwanted calories or boost the product’s glycemic index. Super Coffee is one brand, for example, that uses pure monk fruit sweetener the right way, in all of its products.

If you’re wondering whether monk fruit extract can be used for cooking or baking, the answer is “sort of.” It’s fine for sauces and marinades, in the right proportions. But its consistency and overwhelming sweetness makes it very difficult to use as a sugar substitute in recipes. If you want to give it a try in your kitchen, your best bet is to find recipes specifically designed for the use of monk fruit sweetener.

Written by Liz Moore

4 min read

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