If the sugar substitutes that we’ve looked at over the past few weeks aren’t appealing to you, you might be interested in one of the newest sweeteners to hit the market: monk fruit extract. I’ve noticed that several readers have mentioned that they really like this sweetener, and one of the appeals to people is that it seems more “natural” than the sweeteners that are manufactured in the lab. But what is monk fruit extract, really, and is it as good as it seems? Read on to learn more.
What is monk fruit extract?
Monk fruit extract, also known as luo han guo, is native to the forests of southern China. The fruit itself looks like a melon but is actually a gourd. Monk fruit grows on vines and is about the size of a lemon. Hundreds of years ago, Buddhist monks cultivated monk fruit for medicinal purposes. Even today, folks in southern China use monk fruit extract to treat sore throats, colds, and intestinal ailments.
Food manufacturers have been able to extract compounds of this fruit, called mogrosides. The fruit is crushed and the mogrosides are obtained by infusing the crushed fruit with hot water. Mogrosides are antioxidants that happen to be very sweet, about 300 times sweeter than sugar, in fact. The consistency of this sweetener is very much like granulated sugar. Procter & Gamble actually patented monk fruit for use as a sweetener back in 1995, but the FDA didn’t give approval to it until 2010. A New Zealand company, BioVittoria, is the lead producer of monk fruit extract through a license obtained by Procter & Gamble.
Monk fruit extract has run into a few pitfalls, however, which may explain why this particular sweetener has not taken the sweetener industry by storm. First, it’s only grown in the southern regions of China and is apparently quite expensive to grow. The extraction of the mogrosides is very involved and takes a long time, adding to the expense. Finally, Chinese law prevents monk fruit and its genetic material from leaving the country, which means that monk fruit cannot be grown elsewhere and must be confined to China.
So far, there are relatively few companies that produce monk fruit extract sweetener. McNeil Nutritionals, the company that produces Splenda, had come out with Nectresse (their version of monk fruit extract) several years ago, but they have since discontinued it. Available brand names of monk fruit extract include Monk Fruit In the Raw, Lakanto Monk Fruit Sweetener, Health Garden Monk Fruit Sweetener, and Skinnygirl Monk Fruit Extract Liquid Sweetener. One 0.8-gram packet of Monk Fruit In the Raw contains less than 1 gram of carbohydrate and 0 calories.
As I previously mentioned, monk fruit extract is comprised of substances called mogrosides. Mogrosides have antioxidant properties (which is a good thing). And along with being an antioxidant, mogrosides appear to have anticancer properties and may have the ability to prevent diabetes complications. In a study with mice, mogrosides lowered oxidative stress, improved blood glucose, and lowered lipid (blood fat) levels.
What are the concerns about consuming monk fruit extract?
There are no known reported adverse effects from consuming monk fruit extract; however, the possible downside of monk fruit extract is that it’s been poorly tested. Unlike the other sweeteners we’ve looked at, there just aren’t the hundreds of studies to back up its safety. So, in one sense, consuming monk fruit extract is a bit like taking a chance: is it safe or not? Remember that just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s safe. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recommends using this sweetener “with caution” because there are no long-term studies to support its safety.
How much monk fruit extract is safe to use?
No ADI (acceptable daily intake) has been set (yet) for monk fruit extract. However, there is an estimated daily intake (EDI) of 6.8 mg/kg of body weight. Again, there isn’t sufficient research on monk fruit extract at this time to establish the ADI.
Is monk fruit extract safe? In my opinion, probably yes! I’m hoping that those Buddhist monks, centuries ago, got it right and that this is a sweetener that you can feel safe and comfortable using. But just in case, I’d suggest using this in moderation.
More on sweeteners next week!
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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.
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