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Monk Fruit Extract and Stevia - Sweet Alternatives to Sugar

Brown colored monk fruit / Photo Credit via Shutterstock

 

Monk fruit and stevia are emerging sugar substitutes that are beginning to make an impact in the food and beverage industries. Up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, studies have shown that they may actually counteract diabetes.

 

Monk fruit extract an emerging sugar replacement

Monk fruit, or luo han guo, is produced by the vine plant Siraitia grosvenorii, which is a herbaceous perennial of the gourd family, and is 3-5 meters in length. The fruit is 5-7 centimeters in diameter with smooth, yellow-brownish, or green-brownish color skin which is hard but thin and covered in fine hairs.

The interior can be eaten fresh; however, the fruit is usually dried before consumption and the rind can be used to make tea. The dried fruit is also used in soups. An extract can be made from the fruit that is nearly 300 times sweeter than sugar. The fruit is 25 to 38-percent carbohydrate, the majority of which is glucose and fructose, however, the components responsible for the extra sweetness are the five different mogrosides, numbered I to V, which make up around 1 percent. 

The said fruit is native to southern China and northern Thailand. It is rarely found in the wild and has been cultivated for hundreds of years in the mountains near Guillin, in the province of Guangxi, China, which has a yearly output of about 100 million fruit.

The primary use of the fruit is as a sweetener and it is also used in traditional medicine in the form of teas and soups for coughs and sore throat. In southern China, the fruit is also considered to be responsible for improved lifespan.

Preclinical scientific evidence also suggests that mogrosides do have a medicinal effect. For example, they have been shown to lower blood glucose levels. In diabetic mice, mogrosides have been shown to lower blood glucose and shift the lipid composition to one more favorable for health. In mice models, they also have anti-inflammatory effects. Signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (STAT3) is a potential drug target in numerous cancers, including difficult-to-treat pancreatic cancer, and it has been found that a metabolite of mogrosides inhibits STAT3 activation in mouse models, meaning it has potential applications in cancer therapy.

Procter & Gamble holds a patent for the manufacture of a natural sweetener from monk fruit which states that it is necessary to separate the sweetening components from sulfur-containing compounds of the fruit in order to obtain a viable product. The company called Layn is currently in the process of commercializing its own monk fruit sweetener as a potential component in drinks, ice cream, and baked goods in the USA, China, and Europe.

 

 

Stevia accelerating the replacement of sugar

A rival to monk fruit sweetener is called stevia which can be produced from the plant Stevia rebaudiana. It is a perennial, native to parts of Brazil and Paraguay, that favors humid, wet environments. It belongs to the sunflower family and is commonly called candyleaf, sweetleaf, or sugarleaf. The leaves can be eaten raw or added to foods and teas. Like monk fruit extract, stevia is 250-300 times sweeter than sugar.

Stevia rebaudiana is cultivated and used to sweeten food in Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. It can also be found in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Israel. It has been grown on an experimental basis in Ontario, Canada since 1987 to determine the feasibility of commercial cultivation.

In 2006, Japan consumed more stevia than any other country, with stevia accounting for 40 percent of the sweetener market. The first commercial stevia sweetener was produced in Japan in 1971. According to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, as of 2006, China was the world's largest exporter of stevia products. In New Zealand, the Coca-Cola company has recently launched it’s first ever 100=percent stevia sweetened coke drink.

 

A monk fruit from its tree, and unripened / Photo by: Carl Ning via Shutterstock

 

Like monk fruit extract, stevia also has potential health benefits. A new study by Uswa Ahmad and Rabia Shabir Ahmad of the Department of Food Science, Nutrition & Home Economics, Government College University, Allama Iqbal Road, Faisalabad, Pakistan, has shown that an aqueous extract of Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni leaves has anti-diabetic properties in a rat model.

They published their results in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The authors fed the diabetic rats with a water-based solution of stevia at different doses for eight weeks and compared the results with control diabetic rats that did not receive stevia. The rats that received stevia ate less food and lost weight. Their blood also contained less glucose, with improved insulin and liver glycogen levels.

Given the promising commercial background of stevia products, Manus Bio Inc. of Massachusetts, USA has purchased a former NutraSweet manufacturing plant, creating 50 jobs to produce stevia from engineered bacteria, in a fermentation process that will produce a low-cost pure product. This decision could be based on an opportunity they have identified, namely the ramping up of stevia demand from the food and beverage industries.

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