Here in the new year, millions of Americans will try to cut back on sugar or drop it altogether. It’s a noble effort because sugar is devoid of nutrients, except for calories, which it has in spades.
Quick fact: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports each of us consumes 31 five-pound bags of sugar a year. That’s 267,840 empty calories from sugar alone. Still, people will be jonesing for something sweet to eat. Enter: monk fruit.
Traditionally, people used zero-calorie sweeteners to satisfy their sugar cravings at no caloric cost. Synthetic sugar substitutes, including aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda) and others, are added at the table but are mostly taken as carbonated diet drinks and low calorie foods. But consumption of those foods has taken a nosedive as of late as health conscious consumers flock to natural sweeteners. Stevia, the zero-calorie herb extract, is gaining appeal, but monk fruit is the real one to watch.
Named for the Chinese Buddhist monks who cultivated it for centuries, monk fruit, also called luo han guo or LHG, is a small fuzzy fruit that grows on a vine like a cucumber. The monks use it to sweeten tea and promote long life. They simmer monk fruit (skin, flesh and seeds) in water to extract the sweetness. Depending on the extract, monk fruit is 150 to 500 times sweeter than an equal volume of sugar. And it has zero calories! Of all the non-caloric sweeteners on the market, monk fruit is said to taste most like sugar. It does have a mild off-note, but the aftertaste does not have chemical overtones and has less of stevia’s bitter, licorice taste.
Monk fruit has not been easy to find because Chinese law forbids the monk fruit’s seeds and genetic material from leaving China. BioVittoria, a New Zealand company, is working cooperatively with the Chinese government to manage the monk fruit supply chain. They cultivate the seedlings (as non-GMO), tend the plants with local growers, process the fruit and standardize the extract to ensure the level of quality needed for commercial use. BioVittoria shepherded monk fruit through the FDA’s approval process and, in 2013, monk fruit was placed on the FDA’s Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list of additives.
For table consumption in the U.S., monk fruit is sold as Monk Fruit In The Raw by Cumberland Packing Corporation. Monk Fruit In The Raw combines the monk fruit extract with dextrose to make it more like table sugar and to dilute its intense sweetness. The product dissolves quickly in hot liquids and it is heat stable so you can cook and bake with it. Conversion information, cooking tips, and recipes can be found at In the Raw’s website.
Earlier in 2014, Nectresse, a product that combined monk fruit extract with erythritol (a sugar alcohol), sugar, and molasses was discontinued due to lack of sales. With limited production in China, perhaps it was too expensive, or maybe it wasn’t pure enough to meet consumer demand for an all-natural sweetener.
Either way, monk fruit sweetener for the table is here to stay, and if those manufacturers are lucky, monk fruit will be formulated into diet foods far and away. It is on trend with consumer preference for natural ‘good for you’ sweeteners. For anyone looking to trim sugar, monk fruit is definitely worth a try, especially, as the monks preferred, in a cup of tea.