Efforts to cut down on processed sugar might be at an all-time high, which means that demand for healthier sugar alternatives is, too. That’s probably why monk fruit sweetener is starting to pop up in sugar-free sodas, ice cream, cookies, candy and in handy packets at the coffee shop.
It’s a darling in the low-calorie, low-glycemic sweetness game for a number of reasons: It’s fruit-derived with a pleasant flavor, and it’s suitable for cooking as well as for sprinkling atop berries or yogurt. But is it safe? And is monk fruit the right way to sweeten up your diet?
Monk fruit, also known by its Southeast Asian name lo han guo, has been deemed as safe for the general population, including pregnant and nursing women, children and diabetics, by the governments of China, Japan, Singapore, Canada and the US.
HOW IS IT MADE?
To extract its sweetness, the pulp of the streaked-green lemon-sized gourd is crushed to render the juice, rich in mogrosides (the sweet compound), which is then dried into sugar-like crystals.
Shoppers seeking pure monk fruit should look for unadulterated products such as Pure Monk with no added ingredients. Beware because some brands of the sweetener sold retail, such as Lakanto or Monk Fruit in the Raw, cut the monk fruit with dextrose, erythritol, molasses or some amount of real sugar. This process obviously adds more calories or sugar complications back into the bowl.
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IS MONK FRUIT BETTER FOR YOU THAN SUGAR?
If you’re craving sweetness, monk fruit can be a helpful way to cut the calories compared to cane sugar. Keep this in mind: Monk fruit sweetener is much more concentrated than real sugar. Many brands say to use 1/4–1/3 as much monk fruit sweetener as you would sugar, then add more as needed to taste.
So if you’re trying to curb your sugar cravings, monk fruit might not be the best because sweet foods can promote a cycle of craving more sugary foods, which could be counterproductive to your sugar reduction goals in the long run. So while monk fruit is safe and mostly satisfying, it, like most foods, should be consumed in moderation.
HOW DOES MONK FRUIT TASTE?
The flavor of monk fruit is clean and sweet, but it does have a slight lingering aftertaste that’s best with big flavors like ginger, citrus, dense chocolate or peanut.
It’s a snap to stir crystallized monk fruit sugar into your coffee or lemonade, or to sprinkle it on top of yogurt or cereal. In sauces or salad dressings, the reduced volume of the sweetener isn’t often an issue. It dissolves well and tricks the tongue well.
In addition to being sold as coffee packets and baking-size bags of ready-to-use sweetener, monk fruit is gaining prominence in packaged foods in health food stores and grocery chains nationwide. It gracefully lowers the calories of sodas and other sweet drinks. On the grocery shelf, fridge, and freezer, you can also find it in ice cream, packaged cookies, chocolate and candy and breakfast foods.
CAN YOU COOK WITH MONK FRUIT?
Monk fruit is also heat stable, meaning that it can withstand the high temperatures of cooking and baking, but the texture of some foods may change. Real sugar does more than add sweetness to baked goods. It’s a necessary ingredient for creating fluffy and tender results, and it’s the element that makes food chewy or crunchy.
Monk fruit can easily be swapped for sugar in baked goods like brownies and cheesecake that don’t require rising or a crust. But for baked goods that rely on a crisp, light or toothsome texture, such as pie crusts, cookies and cakes, monk fruit is not quite a substitute for the real thing. Be prepared for paler bakes as well. One monk fruit sweetener brand recommends swapping monk fruit for just half of the sugar in most recipes to mitigate these textural changes.