What Is Monk Fruit?

Monk fruit has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, and now it is being used to sweeten food. phloen/Shutterstock

Monk fruit is all the rage lately, thanks to the never-ending search for an alternative sweetener to sugar that’s not made from chemicals.

Artificial sweeteners have been used in food products for more than 100 years. In the last 30 years though, links have been found between the ingestion of some artificial sweeteners and certain types of cancer in lab rats. Those risks don't translate to humans, who would have to ingest large doses of the sweeteners to see any correlation, according to the same studies. Nevertheless, people have been looking for a natural alternative to artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame and saccharin.

An Alternative to Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners

One such natural sweetener is stevia, derived from a plant grown in South America and commercially introduced in the U.S. as a sweetener in 2008. More recently, we've seen sweeteners derived from monk fruit. What fruit, you say?

Indigenous to China and Thailand, monk fruit (a green, round melon-looking fruit) is grown on a vine known as siraitia grosvenorii, named for the president of the National Geographic Society in the 1930s who funded an expedition to find the fruit. In Chinese, it is called luo han guo. It has zero calories and is said to be up to 500 times sweeter than sugar.

Nurturing History

It's colloquially referred to as monk fruit because it was said to have first been used by monks in China in the 13th century. Today, it is still used for its medicinal properties — the fruit itself is believed to help in treating a cough and sore throat and is also believed to promote a long life (possibly because it is native to a region in China that has an usually high number of residents age 100 or more).

While monk fruit itself has been treating illness in China for thousands of years, the processed commercial version is relatively new to the market. That's because, though sweet, monk fruit has some interfering flavors, nullifying the actual fruit's ability to be used as a sweetener. In 1995, Procter and Gamble patented a process to eliminate the interfering tastes and make a useful sweetener from the fruit.

Finding Monk Fruit Now

Monk fruit extract is now sold commercially under a few brand names in the United States, one of which is Nectresse (from the same people who brought you Splenda). A glance at Nectresse's ingredient list reads: erythritol (a sugar alcohol), sugar, monk fruit extract, and molasses — meaning that you're not exactly getting as natural a product as you might have hoped. The most "natural" version of monk fruit sweetener that I have found is Monk Fruit In The Raw, which contains only dextrose and monk fruit extract — still not perfect, but getting there.

Overall, the response to monk fruit sweetener has been positive, though some say that it leaves you with a less than pleasing aftertaste (though less bitter than the aftertaste a lot of people complain about with stevia).

If you're trying to cut calories while still satisfying your sweet tooth, then monk fruit sweetener may be the answer for you. If unprocessed is what you’re looking for, it seems the search for a truly natural sweetener must go on.