Monk Fruit: The Next Generation Natural Sweetener

by Christine Hronec

Luo han guo, also known as monk fruit, seems poised to be the next natural non-nutritive sweetener. With stevia laying the ground work, as a gradual smash hit, the U.S. sweetener market is prime for new advancements and offerings in natural ingredients. The extract naturally found in the stevia leaf plant, Rebaudioside A, is 300 times sweeter than sugar with a negligible amount of calories. Interestingly enough it has been used as a sweetener for decades in many countries before stevia extracts entered the U.S. sweetener market. Taste has always been the major trader trade-off most dieters have been willing to make in order to consume low calorie foods without sacrificing flavor. However a truly natural option was never existed until stevia, which has been a huge part of that sweetener’s success.

Playing that same card is the next big sweetener to hit the market. A fruit of the herbaceous perennial vine Siraitia grosvenorii, native to southern China and northern Thailand, is called by several names, including luo han guo, Buddha fruit or, more recently, monk fruit. Known in traditional Chinese medicine as a sweetener for cooling drinks and used to treat obesity and diabetes, monk fruit contains fructose and glucose as natural sugars. But it’s the mogrosides, compounds similar to those that sweeten stevia, that make the monk fruit up to 300 times as sweet as sugar.

The seedlings are the optimized result of natural plant breeding, before the monk fruit extract is processed into a powder, which is then sent through distributors around the world. Since this ingredient comes from a fruit, it starts as a liquid extract where only water is used in the extraction/processing. The mogrosides are then separated from the fresh-pressed juice of the monk fruit that contains carbohydrate sources, fructose and glucose. And that could be a key advantage over stevia. A true “natural” claim for some stevia could be questioned, as some suppliers of that plant-based sweetener use solvents to extract the steviol glycosides where monk fruit uses a pure water based extraction method.

The majority of the current interest in monk fruit is due to its sweetening ability, while there are several other bioactives in the fruit that could become valuable and marketed ingredients down the road. The first milestone was the January 2010 notification from the FDA that its Fruit-Sweetness-branded monk fruit concentrate is GRAS (generally recognized as safe). It is currently available from Tate and Lyle under the name Purefruit ® as well as McNeil Nutritionals (a Johnson and Johnson subsidiary), Nectresse®. Nectresse® is a consumer/tabletop ingredient advertised as a combination of monk fruit and and other natural sweeteners including erythritol, a sugar alcohol that is fermented from sugars present in many vegetables and fruits.

Monk fruit, with a different flavor profile from sugar, has less of an aftertaste than even the purest form of stevia. Monk fruit is very new to this market, however it is being welcomed by companies who make natural food products. It will take time for more product developers to fine-tune it and consumers to accept it, just like stevia.

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