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What is monk fruit, and should we really care about it?

Despite being part of a marketplace already inundated with zero-calorie sweeteners, this sweet, round fruit could have some benefits that sets it apart from the rest

Besides its delicious sweetness, one of the significant characteristics of monk fruit  is its antioxidant properties
Besides its delicious sweetness, one of the significant characteristics of monk fruit  is its antioxidant properties (iStockphoto)

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I laughed hysterically when the British comedian, Jack Whitehall, joked about going into a cafe and being asked what type of milk he wanted in his coffee. The barista said, "we have almond nut milk, hazelnut milk, cashew nut milk, macadamia nut milk, oat milk, rice milk, hemp milk, soy milk…you can have it from a bean, from a pulse, from a nut from a grain, from an oat, from a flax from a leaf, from a seed, or a tree…we have enough milk now!"

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And so, when I first heard about monk fruit sweetener, I laughed all the same. Don't we have enough variety of zero-calorie sweeteners now? Apparently, we don't, going by the hype created because of this natural sweetener, which has started making waves in the food industry. It piqued my interest, nevertheless, and I decided to do what I always do when I find something new and exciting; I set out to investigate the hype around the humble, unassuming monk fruit to see what the fuss was about.

Monkfruit, or luo han guo or Swingle fruit, is a small, round fruit native to Southern China, named after the Buddhist monks who first cultivated it centuries ago. Records indicate that the fruit has a long history in Chinese medicine. Recently, the food industry has also discovered it can be made into a sweetener over 100x sweeter than sugar. The reason it's so sweet is owing to its natural chemical compound called mogroside, the sweetest part of the fruit. Manufacturers remove the skin, extract the seeds, crush the fruit, and filter its juices to get at this delicious sweetness. The juices can be made into powders, pills, or liquids. You can even blend it with erythritol to taste and look like table sugar.

Two amazing things come from having such a potent sweetness in a tiny package. The first is because the sweetness is so powerful that manufacturers only require a small amount to obtain the same sweetness as sugar, making it a zero-calorie additive. Secondly, this natural sweetener doesn't seem to alter blood glucose levels, making it a safer and preferable alternative for those who have diabetes. While managing their sugar levels, they can also enjoy naturally sweetened food that helps sate their sweetness cravings. It also contains no carbohydrates or fat, making it the preferred sweetener for beverages and baked goods for those eating low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diets.

Besides its delicious sweetness, one of the significant characteristics of mogroside is its antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are famous for sweeping the body of free radicals, which can cause oxidative damage to our cells (hence the term "anti" oxidant). The oxidative damage causes increased inflammation levels in our bodies. Chronic inflammation is the backbone of many diseases, so monk fruit and its antioxidants can act as an anti-inflammatory. Furthermore, according to a Food Insight paper conducted on the properties of monk fruit, in ancient Chinese medicine, monk fruit was also used as a digestive aid.

There are other theories around monk fruit; for instance, it is believed to help suppress colorectal and throat cancer, as discussed in the study titled Antiproliferative Activity of Triterpene Glycoside Nutrient from Monk Fruit in Colorectal Cancer and Throat Cancer, published in 2016. Medical News Today has also reported that studies have examined monk fruits' antibiotic properties and their ability to fight candida.

Sounds too good to be true? You could be right. So here's the catch: much of the perceived medical benefits of monk fruit come from studies conducted on animals. However, since our primary use of monk fruit sweetener is not to use it as a medicinal supplement but as a low-calorie sweetener, let's divert attention away from the potential medical benefits and focus on the sweetness.

We know this for sure; monk fruit will most likely not harm you. The Federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved monk fruit sweeteners, and there is no upper intake limit established during consumption, as there are no known side effects of ingesting it. It is even labelled as GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) for everyone, including pregnant women and children, and over 60 countries allow the use of monk fruit sweeteners in their foods.

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In baking, monk fruit can sustain high temperatures, which makes it great for baking; however, because it has a different chemical makeup to sugar, your muffins will come out of the oven looking slightly different than expected. And yes, I also read that since monk fruit ferments differently from table sugar, you can eat it without worrying about tooth decay.

While this is excellent news in the baking, diabetic, and sugar-conscious communities, does that mean you should be switching to monk fruit sweeteners right away?

Not quite. For starters, it is very hard to find. If you've gotten excited while reading about monk fruit and want to run out to your local grocer to pick some up, you may be disappointed when you scour the shelves looking for it. It's challenging to grow, has to be imported and will therefore be harder to find and more expensive than local alternatives.

More importantly, will it actually help you lose weight? Again, this is a complicated question. It's helpful to know that any highly palatable foods (such as sugary ones) that hit the brain's pleasure centre can increase your desire to eat more highly palatable foods. Even if a particular sweetener, artificial or natural, has zero calories, you rarely eat them in isolation. They are often mixed and baked into delicious baked goods, beverages, and ice creams with total overall calorie content. The more you want to eat these foods, the more calories you will ingest as a side effect. Therefore, it's not just monk fruit sweeteners that you need to be wary of if you're trying to lose weight. If you find that sweet foods trigger a hedonic response to food (you want to eat even though you're not hungry), perhaps it's best to find an alternative, such as a piece of fruit, instead of a baked good or treat.

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach



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