What are monk fruit and stevia?
In this article, we describe what monk fruit and stevia are, the pros and cons of using each, and how to choose between them.
We also discuss whether these sweeteners are safe for people with diabetes and look at some alternatives.
Monk fruit is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar.
Monk fruit is also called luo han guo or swingle. It looks like a small gourd, and it grows on a vine.
Monk fruit is native to regions of Southeast Asia, including some parts of Thailand and China. Buddhist monks in the 13th century were the first to cultivate the fruit, which is the reason for its name.
Fresh monk fruit spoils rather quickly. Traditionally, people used dried monk fruit in herbal medicines.
Today, monk fruit is most popular as a natural sweetener. The fruit's extract contains substances called mogrosides, which are intensely sweet.
According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, monk fruit is around 150–200 times sweeter than sugar. Some manufacturers mix the extract with different sugars to balance out the intensity.
A variety of monk fruit sweeteners are available to purchase online.
Monk fruit pros
A monk fruit sweetener has several benefits when compared with sugar:
- Zero calories. Monk fruit extract contains no calories, which is helpful for people on diets that restrict a person's caloric intake.
- Zero carbohydrates. The extract also contains no carbohydrates, which may make it ideal for people on low-carb or keto diets.
- Zero sugar. There is no sugar in pure monk fruit extract, which means that consuming it will not affect blood sugar levels.
- No harmful side effects. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers monk fruit sweeteners to be generally regarded as safe. There appears to be no evidence that monk fruit sweeteners cause harmful side effects.
- Available in multiple forms. Monk fruit sweeteners are marketed as granules, powders, and liquids. Some products may be easy to carry and use throughout the day.
Monk fruit sweeteners may also have some health benefits:
- Antioxidants. Some studies in animals suggest that mogrosides extracted from monk fruit may have potent antioxidant properties. Further research is needed to understand the effects in humans. Also, it is unclear if eating the processed sweetener has the same benefits as eating the fruit.
- Diabetes. Research in animals also suggests that mogrosides play a role in controlling blood sugar levels. Results of another study indicate that mogroside extracts may help prevent diabetic complications. However, researchers have yet to investigate these effects in humans.
Monk fruit cons
For the following reasons, a person may think twice before using monk fruit sweeteners to replace sugar:
- Availability and cost. Monk fruit is difficult to grow and costly to export, which means that it is not as widely available as other sweeteners, and it can be expensive.
- Taste. Monk fruit sweeteners taste different from regular table sugar, and some find the taste unusual or unpleasant. The sweeteners can also leave an aftertaste.
- Other ingredients. Some manufacturers balance the taste of monk fruit by mixing it with other sugars, such as maltodextrin or dextrose. This can change the sweetener's nutritional profile and make it unsafe or undesirable for some people.
Stevia has zero calories and zero sugars.
Stevia is a sweetener extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, which is native to some parts of South America.
The leaves contain substances knowns as steviol glycosides, which are 200–400 times sweeter than table sugar.
People have used whole leaves or crude extracts from the plant as a sweetener for many centuries. Despite this, the FDA have not approved the use of raw stevia, due to safety concerns.
However, the FDA do consider high-purity extracts of steviol glycosides to be generally regarded as safe.
This means that, in the U.S., stevia sweeteners usually consist of highly purified extracts of the steviol glycosides rebaudioside A or stevioside. They may contain a mixture of both.
A variety of stevia sweeteners are available to purchase online.
When compared with table sugar, stevia has similar advantages to monk fruit, including:
- zero calories
- zero carbohydrates
- zero sugars
- availability in many forms
Some potential disadvantages to using stevia sweeteners include:
- Side effects. Stevia can cause gastrointestinal side effects in some people, including gas, nausea, and bloating.
- Allergic reactions. Some people have allergic reactions to steviol glycosides that are not extremely pure. Stevia is part of the Asteraceae plant family, which includes daisies, sunflowers, and chrysanthemums. Anyone with allergies to these plants or others in the family should avoid stevia products.
- Availability and cost. Like monk fruit, stevia is generally more expensive and less widely available than sugar and some other sweeteners.
- Taste. Some people find that stevia products have an unpleasant aftertaste, which may be bitter or metallic.
- Other ingredients. As with monk fruit, manufacturers sometimes mix stevia with other sweeteners to balance out the taste. This can change the nutritional profile of the product and make it unsafe or undesirable for some people.
- Refined. The FDA only permits the use of highly purified stevia products in the US. People looking for a truly natural alternative to sugar may find this unsatisfactory.
Are monk fruit and stevia safe for people with diabetes?
Monk fruit and stevia are both low-glycemic sweeteners and should have little or no effect on a person's blood sugar levels.
However, it is important to check the labels of products that contain these sweeteners. Other ingredients may contain sugars or carbohydrates.
Choosing between monk fruit and stevia
Monk fruit and stevia have very similar properties. For many, the choice between them simply comes down to personal preference. A person may want to try both and see which they prefer.
When choosing between monk fruit and stevia, considerations may include:
- added ingredients, such as other sugars or sweeteners
- side effects
People with allergies to other plants in the Asteraceae family should avoid stevia.
Anyone who experiences gastrointestinal side effects from stevia may prefer monk fruit sweeteners.
Also, it is important to consider the use. One sweetener may work better in tea and coffee, while the other may be better for cooking and baking.
Alternatives to monk fruit and stevia
Aspartame is one of six high-intensity sweeteners that the FDA have approved.
There are a variety of alternative sweeteners.
The FDA have approved six high-intensity sweeteners for food:
- acesulfame potassium, which is also known as Ace-K
However, these may negatively affect blood sugar management, gut health, and cardiovascular health. More research is needed.
For people interested in sweeteners that contain some sugar and calories, natural choices include:
- fruit juice concentrate
- maple syrup
- date paste
- agave nectar
- yacon syrup
Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate. They are an alternative to sugar and contain fewer calories. Examples include:
However, sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal side effects, such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
Monk fruit and stevia are non-nutritive sweeteners. This means that the products contain very few calories, if any. They both come from plants, and they have very similar properties.
Monk fruit and stevia sweeteners are generally safe for people with diabetes, but always check the labeling to ensure that the manufacturers have not added sugars or carbohydrates.
For many people, choosing between these two sweeteners will come down to cost, availability, and taste.
However, stevia can cause gastrointestinal side effects. Also, anyone with an allergy to plants from the Asteraceae family should avoid stevia.
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