In the last several years, monk fruit sugar has grown exponentially in popularity along with other low-carb sweeteners due to the ketogenic, or keto, diet. These sweeteners are heavily promoted as low-carb and zero-calorie alternatives, but are the benefits all they’re cracked up to be? Let’s dive into monk fruit, and a few other low-carb sweeteners, and whether or not it is safe and nutritious.
What Is The Keto Diet, Anyway?
Before we jump into monk fruit, let’s quickly review the ketogenic (keto) diet. It’s a low carbohydrate, high-fat diet. Instead of replacing carbs with protein, you swap in nutritious sources of fat. This sends the body into ketosis, where we start burning fat as our primary source of energy. The ketogenic diet was developed in the 1920s to treat epilepsy and has since been used to help with weight loss, cardiovascular health, diabetes, brain disorders and certain types of cancer.
Sugars are restricted on the keto diet (you can read more about the allowed/prohibited foods here) and so monk fruit has emerged as a prominent alternative in the keto and low-carb world.
What Is Monk Fruit?
Monk fruit, or Luo Han Guo, is part of the gourd family. It’s primarily grown in China where it has been used for hundreds of years as a food and herbal medicine. It’s traditionally been consumed to soothe sore throats and relieve coughs, as well as clear phlegm from the lungs.
Monk fruit is anywhere from 150–300 times sweeter than sucrose. It’s rarely consumed fresh, as the fruit spoils quickly. The sweet taste of monk fruit comes from a family of compounds called mogrosides, which are extracted from the fruit. Commonly, the seeds and the peel are discarded, while the juice and pulp are pureed and dried. Monk fruit is also dried whole, but it’s less common to find in that form.
Monk fruit is available as a liquid extract, but you’re more likely to find it in a powdered form like sugar so it can be more easily used as a sugar substitute, especially in baking. (Check out this handy guide for how to swap monk fruit and all its forms for traditional sugars.)
Is Monk Fruit Healthy?
We receive a boatload of questions from Culinary Nutrition Expert Program students and graduates wondering if monk fruit is healthy, and whether they should use it as a preferred natural sweetener.
Note that monk fruit’s effects have not been thoroughly investigated at this point; with limited studies on humans.
Health Benefits of Monk Fruit
- Low glycemic, which may help to balance blood sugar levels and insulin secretion
- Monk fruit’s mogrosides have antioxidant properties – antioxidants can help reduce damage and inflammation in the body
- Can aid with alleviating coughs and sore throats
- Can inhibit inflammation
- May help to support immune function
- Zero calorie, which for some can benefit weight management
Drawbacks of Monk Fruit
- It’s rare to find pure monk fruit sugar; it’s typically cut with stevia or sugar alcohols such as erythritol so it can be used 1:1 as a sugar replacement
- May disrupt the balance of TH1 and TH2 immune cells, leading to the aggravation of autoimmune conditions
- Sweet tastes on the tongue prime the body for more calories; with a zero calorie sweetener such as monk fruit, those calories may not arrive. In this small randomized study, 30 men were given a mid-morning beverage sweetened with either aspartame, monk fruit, stevia, or sucrose. Those who had drinks with the low or zero calorie sweeteners (aspartame, monk fruit, stevia) tended to eat more food at lunch, compensating for the missed calories earlier. However, the study concluded that the zero calorie sweeteners had a minimal impact on overall food intake throughout the day.
- A lot of processing goes into extracting the sweetness from monk fruit to make monk fruit sugar. We prefer natural sweeteners that are as whole as possible (think bananas, dates, etc.).
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Other Low-Carb, Keto-Friendly Sweeteners
Aside from monk fruit, additional keto-friendly sweeteners include stevia and erythritol.
Health Benefits of Stevia
Stevia is derived from the leaves of the stevia plant. In its most whole food form, stevia is available as a green powder – but more often you’ll find it as a white powder or clear liquid extract. It’s about 150 times sweeter than sugar. Some brands have a bitter, metallic taste.
It’s benefits include:
- Stevia doesn’t affect blood sugar levels, making it a common sweetener for diabetics.
- It can help with weight control and lowering blood pressure.
- Has a low-carbon footprint, requiring less water, energy and land
Health Risks of Stevia
- As consuming stevia doesn’t lead to satiety, it may prompt excess food intake and weight gain
- Low-calorie and low-carb sweeteners such as stevia can disrupt the gut microbiome, potentially leading to dysbiosis. Our microbiome is essential to many areas of our health including digestion, immunity and neurological health.
- Can disrupt the endocrine system, our system of hormones
- Alternative sweeteners like stevia may increase the risk of pregnancy complications, and researchers hypothesize that using sweeteners during pregnancy may lead to weight gain and sugar consumption for kids later in life (though more studies are required to confirm this)
Health Benefits of Erythritol
Another popular keto-friendly sweetener is erythritol. It’s part of the sugar alcohol family, though unlike other sugar alcohols (xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, etc.) erythritol is not high FODMAP.
Some of the positive aspects of erythritol are:
- Erythritol is absorbed into the bloodstream via the small intestine, but it doesn’t impact blood sugar levels
- Helps to prevent cavities
- Has antioxidant properties
- Zero calorie, which for some can aid healthy weight management
Downsides of Erythritol
- Is derived from corn, and a lot of corn is genetically modified
- Erythritol is less sweet, so it may be combined with other low-carb sweeteners or artificial sweeteners
- Has a cooling sensation in your mouth (which some like and others don’t)
- While its not a FODMAP, large quantities of erythritol can cause digestive upsets like bloating, gas and diarrhea
- May be associated with obesity in young adults
- When mixed with artificial sweeteners, erythritol consumption can lead to overeating, weight gain, and higher amounts of insulin in the blood.
are Low-Carb Sweeteners and Monk Fruit HEALTHIER THAN SUGAR?
It’s up to each of us to evaluate whether monk fruit and keto-friendly sweeteners work with our individual health needs, with assistance from a health care practitioner, if needed.
For those who are on a specific healing diet or working to address a particular health condition, monk fruit and other alternative sweeteners may help to create delicious, satisfying dishes that will support you (and help you stick to your dietary protocol).
If the motivation behind choosing low-calorie or low-carb sweeteners is a fear of calories or fat, or about the perceived notion that these alternatives are ‘healthier’ or ‘healthy’, there may be many better options that can help support your wellbeing. Perhaps you need to work on reducing or eliminating sugar consumption overall, embracing natural sweetener options that are closer to their whole form, or choosing nutrient-dense whole food options (like fruit and sweeter root vegetables) to help satisfy sweet cravings.
Similar to a gluten-free diet or a vegan diet, if you are merely substituting glutenous baked goods with refined, sugary gluten-free ones, or meat with highly processed vegan meat substitutes, you likely aren’t getting any further ahead in your health goals. It’s better to get to the root of why you are using monk fruit in the first place (or why you feel that you should) and what benefits it can bring to your life.