July 15, 2019 at 03:00PM by CWC
Here’s a healthy eating pop quiz: What’s 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, hails from a Southeast Asian fruit, and is in what seems like every single healthy food product launching this year? If you guessed monk fruit, you get an A.
No, it’s not exactly new: Jessica Cording, R.D., says that she first saw monk fruit extract three to four years ago, around the time when the Paleo diet became popular. (We’ve been talking about it at Well+Good since 2016.) Ever since, the sweetener has billed itself as a natural sugar alternative rivaling other popular choices like Splenda and stevia. And it has a lot going for it: It’s a plant-based option, isn’t associated with side effects, and some research has shown that it has antioxidant properties. And of course, it isn’t sugar.
However, as interest in low-carb eating plans like keto has surged and the world is getting more and more mindful to the ill-effects of excessive sugar consumption, monk fruit seems to have beaten erythritol, stevia, and Splenda to be the alt sweetener du jour. It’s popping up as a selling point on healthy products, was a major buzzword at ExpoWest 2019, and is fueling some interesting innovation in the food space. But how did the ingredient come out on top in the midst of a very crowded field?
One huge reason: taste. Some alternative sweeteners offer a distinct aftertaste; monk fruit, by comparison, has a slightly more neutral palate. “Many of our customers have a strong aversion to the flavor and aftertaste [of stevia]. Monk fruit helped us strike the right balance of flavor and nutritional profile, while staying natural,” says Maggie Luther, medical director and formulator of personalized nutrition company Care/of. The brand uses monk fruit (along with cane or coconut sugar) to sweeten its new line of protein powders ($28 per tub).
Tero Isokauppila, founder and CEO of Four Sigmatic, says he came across monk fruit about 10 years ago as he was searching for a natural sweetener to balance out bitter mushroom extracts. “I’ve been playing with it in recipes for the last six years,” he says. “Consumers are also demanding stevia-free protein powders, so this was monk fruit’s time to shine.” Four Sigmatic combines monk fruit extract, organic lucuma, and organic coconut palm sugar to round out the flavor profile of their plant-based Superfood Protein Powder ($40), he says.
Other brands are hoping monk fruit will help their customers avoid some of the more negative side effects of other sweeteners—Splenda, for example, can cause bloating and even have a laxative effect if eaten in excess, says Cording. Lauren Picasso, the founder of Cure Hydration, says she chose monk fruit to sweeten her brand’s recovery and hydration powders in part because artificial sweeteners (like sucralose and aspartame) may negatively affect your gut health. Interestingly, Cure pairs it with stevia rather than avoiding it because “stevia has a sweeter taste but a stronger aftertaste than monk fruit. We use a blend to balance the sweetness and flavor,” Picasso says. “Monk fruit is also very difficult to grow and export, and as result can be very expensive.” The result: A naturally-flavored electrolyte mix that can be stirred into water and costs less than $2 per serving.
“Consumers are demanding stevia-free protein powders, so this was monk fruit’s time to shine.” —Tero Isokaupppila, founder and CEO of Four Sigmatic
Similarly, low-sugar cereal brand Magic Spoon ($39 for 4 boxes) came to monk fruit after over a year of experimentation, says co-founder Gabi Lewis. The brand was looking to reimagine childhood cereal favorites but with more protein and way less carbs and sugar. He says they wanted to stay away from sugar alcohols like erythritol, which can result in bloating, so his team taste-tested more natural options from coconut nectar to monk fruit to the keto-friendly yacon syrup. Since sweetness is paramount to any classic breakfast cereal (even one that’s more health-minded!), Lewis says they landed on three natural sweeteners: monk fruit, stevia, and allulose. “Each of these sweeteners on its own can produce a slight aftertaste. By blending them together in specific ratios, we’re able to balance the notes and flavors and create a sweetness that most closely resembles regular sugar,” he says.
Of course, monk fruit has its limitations. Many monk fruit products also contain “natural flavors”—defined by the FDA as oils, resins, or other extracts derived from natural sources like plants or meat—whose origins aren’t always disclosed on a label. In the case of monk fruit, these “natural flavors” balance the sweetness and taste of monk fruit, says Cording. “I generally recommend steering away from products with ‘natural flavors.’ It’s good to know what we’re putting in our bodies,” she says.
Cording adds that using too much of any kind of sweetener (sugar, monk fruit, or otherwise) can make it harder for a person to appreciate naturally occurring sweetness in foods. And because they don’t have calories, sweeteners create a “health halo,” so that you may eat more than you would if the food contained straight-up sugar. “I find for clients it tends to be a slippery slope,” says Cording. “The goal should be to consume fewer added sweeteners, whether it’s monk fruit or others, and to celebrate natural sweetness of foods we’re eating. Choose whichever sweetener you’ll be most satisfied in smallest amount.”
However, for people who want to (or need to) limit their sugar intake, healthier sweeteners like monk fruit can be game changers. That was the case for SWOON co-founder Jennifer Ross, who has Type 1 diabetes. Many sugar substitutes come in a granulated form that doesn’t blend well into liquids, Ross explains, and she and co-founder Cristina Ros didn’t like the bitter taste of stevia. Enter their newly-launched zero-sugar simple syrup ($24 for three bottles), which adds sweetness to coffee, margaritas, and other drinks. It tastes and behaves like liquid sugar in terms of sweetness, viscosity and mouthfeel through a blend of gum acacia and xanthan gum for texture, lactic acid to preserve it, water, and of course, monk fruit. (There are also some plant-based natural flavors in there to balance out the extreme sweetness, Ross says.)
In Cording’s view, there is absolutely no replacement for whole foods sources of sweetness—and that’s a goal everyone can aim towards. But if you’re looking to have your low-sugar cake and eat it too…you’re likely in good hands with monk fruit.