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Monk Fruit: The Sweetener on Everyone’s Lips

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Come what may in 2020, there is one thing for certain – consumers want healthier bodies and a healthier planet and are looking for nature-based solutions.

We’ve long known the negative impacts of a high sugar diet – obesity, diabetes, high risk of heart disease – and yet our natural sweet tooth has ancient evolutionary roots, with mankind craving sugar for thousands of years. Prominent low-sugar diets like Keto and Paleo encourage eaters to rethink their sugar intake and find healthy alternatives to refined sugar. Folks that want to reduce their sugar intake – either for weight, diet, or other health reasons – want options.

Modern science, instead of trying to beat the sweet, has instead created alternatives that feed the need but are lower in calories – sweeteners like Sucralose, Aspartame and Saccharin.  But along with trends towards eating organic and hormone-free meat, growing wariness of man-made chemicals and artificial additives has meant that plant-based sweeteners, like Stevia, have suddenly moved into the forefront of  the market — a way to have your low-sugar cake and eat it too. Which leads us to monk fruit, the natural sweetener to watch in 2020.

What is Monk Fruit?

Never heard of it? Monk fruit, a finicky plant to grow, is found almost exclusively in northern Thailand and southern China. This forlorn-looking brownish (and sometimes yellowish) melon has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, its prevalence among Buddhist monk herbalists giving the fruit its name (its Chinese name is luo han guo).

When fresh, the monk fruit skin is a greenish color with pale, creamy pulp and seeds, dried, the monk fruit takes on a brown or yellow color on the outside and the pulp and seeds dry to a dark tan color.  Fresh monk fruit doesn’t have a very long shelf life, so the pulp of the fresh fruit and its seeds are either juiced and dried into a powder as a sweetener or sold as dried pieces that can be added to teas and other foods.

What are the Benefits?

The monks, we’re told, used the juice of this fruit to sweeten “cooling drinks” used for heatstroke as well as to ease sore throats and help with throat infections. The monk fruit nectar is packed with antioxidants, and is said to reduce inflammation, and block allergy-inducing histamines in the body.

With 150-300 times the sweetness of regular sugar, zero calories and zero carbohydrates, it may be sugar-free seekers’ El Dorado. Monk fruit generally performs better in taste tests, with tasters claiming a less bitter aftertaste than Stevia. The fruit has also been tested and doesn’t elevate blood sugar levels, great for diabetics and the products geared toward them.

How can I take advantage of the trend?

All sorts of companies are now working with monk fruit as a sweetener. Groups like the Monk Fruit Corp and Taura Natural Ingredients are now processing the fruit to create sugar-alternatives for sweetened drinks, baked goods and for using in coffee and tea. While other health-focused companies are incorporating the sweetener into their products. Promix now has monk fruit as part of their vegan chocolate protein powder and BHU foods has it in their keto chocolate cookie dough bites. There’s even a monk fruit maple syrup!

The top manufacturers of monk fruit sugar in a 2019 market report by marketwatch.com were Archer Daniels Midland, Biovittoria (Guilin GFS Monk Fruit Corp), Apura Ingredients, Louis Dreyfus (Imperial Sugar), Health Garden, Matakana SuperFoods, Group Krisda Stevia Canada, and Guilin Layn Natural Ingredients, in addition to hundreds of intermediary suppliers online selling monk fruit extract and ready-made sweetener. 

Are there any downsides?

Like most new foods on the market, scientists and governments are positive, yet cautious. Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and Canada have all approved tabletop packets of monk fruit sweetener as safe for general consumption. In 2010, the FDA designated monk fruit sweetener as GRAS or Generally Recognized as Safe, for general consumption, but there has been little research on the long-term effects (both negative and positive) of high levels of consumption of monk fruit. Some sources claim that this fruit improves longevity, pointing to the regions where it’s grown and an unusual a high level of centenarians living there —  but there has been no scientific study to back up this claim.

Anyone allergic to plants in the gourd family should be wary of monk fruit extract and consult a doctor before trying it. Additionally, if you want to be able to claim your product is 100% natural then you must be diligent in researching how the manufacturers you buy from are processing the fruit. Monk fruit is often chemically processed to remove unpleasant or undesirable flavors that naturally exist in its pulp and is sometimes combined with things like Dextrose or other additives for consistency and sweetness balance. Since sugar is part of food’s consistency and structure, foods with monk fruit might vary in mouthfeel for customers. And finally, price. The fruit’s limited supply means that this is a sweetener with a higher price tag than some.

While monk fruit hasn’t yet reached the ubiquitousness of Stevia, this odd little melon looks like it’s headed down a similar path. As news of this incredible natural sweetener begins to spread, smart companies will get out ahead of the trend and start thinking about ways to incorporate monk fruit into their products now. Your company could already be on the cutting edge when the rest of the world catches up – and wouldn’t that be sweet?

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