Monk Fruit: A Sweetener with Health Benefits?
Monk fruit, also known by its scientific name Siraitia grosvenorii and its Chinese name luo han guo, has a long history of use in China both as a food and a medicine. Extracts made from this small melon-shaped fruit have been reported to be 100-250 times sweeter than table sugar (1), which is why it has also attracted interest in the US and Europe where many people are looking for more natural alternatives to artificial high-intensity sweeteners such as aspartame.
Monk fruit contains antioxidant compounds called mogrosides which not only give this extraordinary fruit its intense sweetness but which may also offer some interesting health benefits, including protection against age-related diseases, relief from allergies, anti-cancer and cough-suppressing effects, and reduced fatigue. As an added benefit, the tiny amount of pure monk fruit extract you need to sweeten foods and drinks contains almost no calories and won't cause spikes in blood sugar levels, so it is also a good sweetener for people who are watching their caloric intake and for people with diabetes. Read on to better understand the potential benefits and side effects of monk fruit.
7 Benefits of Monk Fruit
1. Monk fruit powder is low in calories
Obese and overweight people counting their calories can also reap benefits by switching to monk fruit based sweeteners because dried and powdered monk fruit has close to zero calories per serving (as an aside, monk fruit powder can be over hundred times sweeter than sugar, so the serving sizes are tiny). Of note is also that mogrosides derived from monk fruit have been shown to suppress weight gain in mice fed a high-fat diet (2), a finding that suggests further research on monk fruit and weight loss is definitely in order.
2. Antioxidants in monk fruit may help fight age-related diseases and slow down aging
Mogrosides, the compounds that give monk fruit its sweetness, have been shown to exhibit strong antioxidant effects in test tubes (3, 4). If it turns out that these results can be replicated in human studies, there's a good chance monk fruit will be hailed as the "next superfood". Antioxidants are believed to have all sorts of health benefits, including providing protection against degenerative diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and slowing down aging in general. (Perhaps it is the antioxidants in monk fruit that contribute to its reputation as the "longevity fruit" in its native China!)
3. Monk fruit may have anti-allergic effects, an animal study hints
Intrigued by the fact that substances with antioxidant properties often have anti-allergic effects as well, a group of researchers from Japan set to investigate the effects of monk fruit on allergy symptoms in mice. To induce nasal rubbing and skin scratching in the mice, the researchers used histamine, a compound that mediates allergic reactions, and another compound that promotes histamine release. They then tested whether monk fruit extract would reduce the allergy symptoms. What they found was that a single dose had no effect on the symptoms, but when the treatment was continued for 4 weeks, the anti-allergic effects of the monk fruit extract became apparent. (5)
4. Monk fruit has been shown to possess anti-cancer properties
While many other sweeteners have been proven to increase the risk of cancer, research suggests that monk fruit has anti-cancer properties. A 2016 study published in the journal Oncogenesis, for example, found that mogrosides obtained from monk fruit exhibited anti-cancer effects both in in-vitro and in-vivo models of pancreatic cancer. These effects were attributed to the ability of mogrosides to promote apoptosis (self-destruction) of cancerous cells and to halt the series of events that cause cancerous cells to divide and replicate. (6). Another study, published in the March 2015 issue of the American Journal of Cancer Research, found that mogrol, a biometabolite of mogrosides found in monk fruit, significantly slowed the growth of leukemia cells in an in vitro setting (7).
5. Monk fruit has a long history of use as a cough remedy in China
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), monk fruit has been used as a cough-suppressant and as a remedy for sore throats (8). If you want to take advantage of these properties, considering using monk fruit extract in your sage tea, another natural remedy for coughs and sore throats, in order to reap the most benefits. Or, if you are out of sage tea, try a cup of cough-suppressing thyme tea sweetened with monk fruit extract.
6. A low-GI sweetener, monk fruit extract is suitable for diabetics
Monk fruit extract ranks low on the Glycemic Index (GI), which means it won't cause spikes in blood sugar levels and is a good natural sweetener for diabetics (9). But that is hardly the only reason why people with diabetes might benefit from using monk fruit extract as a sweetener. Mogrosides, the compounds that give monk fruit its sweetness, have been shown to exert anti-diabetic activities in animals studies. These effects have been attributed to the ability of mogrosides to improve insulin secretion in the body. (10) But, if you have diabetes and want to switch to a monk fruit based sweetener, make sure you choose a product that contains pure monk fruit extract and nothing else, or a product that contains fillers and additives that are suitable for diabetics.
7. Monk fruit may be good against fatigue, an animal study suggests
An intriguing study published in 2013 found that monk fruit extract had dose-dependent anti-fatigue effects on mice (11). Obviously, this does not prove that monk fruit sweeteners will have the same effect in humans, but in case you want to give monk fruit a try next time you feel fatigue coming on, here's a tip: add it to a cup of hot chocolate made from dark, unsweetened cacao powder. One of the most scientifically-supported health benefits of dark chocolate is its ability to fight chronic fatigue, which means that by adding monk fruit to your drink you might be able to kill two birds with one stone: to add sweetness to an otherwise somewhat bitter drink and to fight chronic fatigue.
Side Effects and Safety Concerns
Monk fruit has a long history of both culinary and medicinal use in China where it has reportedly been cultivated since the 13th century. In the 21st century, also North Americans have started to show interest in the benefits of using monk fruit extract as a sweetener, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received GRAS (generally recognized as safe) notices from food companies which argue that monk fruit extracts are safe. Since 2010, the FDA has received and reviewed several such notices and has not objected to the use of monk fruit extracts as high-intensity sweeteners (12). It does note, though, that although these extracts are considered safe for use as sweeteners, any food substance is capable of causing an adverse reaction if an individual is sensitive to it. The agency also adds that people should share any concerns they may have about possible adverse reactions with their health care provider. (13)
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