Last Bite: Meet Monk Fruit

As sugar reduction and natural sweetener alternatives continue to appeal in food and beverage markets, now is as good a time as ever to highlight one Far East natural sweetener. Its name is luo han guo (Siraitia grosvenorii), but in the United States, we typically call it “monk fruit.”

A commonly used food throughout Asia, monk fruit got its start in traditional Chinese culture, brewed in tea or soup as custom and for assumed health benefits. The Chinese city of Guilin in Guangxi province remains the primary source of monk fruit agriculture.

Since recently achieving U.S. GRAS status in 2010, major food and beverage companies have initiated product development with monk fruit. It can already be found in Kashi cereal and Bear Naked granola.

Depending on the sweetening system used, suppliers say monk fruit is an average 200 times sweeter than sugar. Still, it’s a fruit source—and this translates to your ingredient label.

“Once you say fruit, you say ‘natural,’ you say ‘wholesome,’ you say ‘great-tasting,’” says David Tuchler, vice president of global marketing, innovation and development, for Tate & Lyle, the British-born company that first brought us Splenda. “Monk fruit telegraphs a whole array of things that are new to the sweetener category.”

In April, Tate & Lyle announced global marketing and distribution rights for BioVittoria Ltd.’s (Hamilton, New Zealand) monk fruit sweetener (now branded as Purefruit monk fruit extract).

But taste is what really matters. So how do suppliers compare the taste of monk fruit to that of alternatives?

“With monk fruit you get natural taste and a tendency to build slower to the sweetness,” says BioVittoria CEO David Thorrold, noting that the sweetness also lasts longer than with sucrose. “This can function well in an application where there are other lingering flavors. In the case of tea that has tannins, the tannins can create bitterness. This is where monk fruit sweetness can blend in at the same time.”

Blend or tweak that sweetness as you will. Monk fruit suppliers like BioVittoria, Guilin Layn Natural Ingredients Corp. (Guilin, China), and Amax Nutrasource (Eugene, OR) can offer a range of sweetness intensities as measured by percentage of mogroside V (monk fruit’s main sweetening compound).

Sweetening a product entirely with monk fruit is possible, but chances are that 100% sugar substitution will not be your answer. Still, reducing sugar and other sweetener use can make for a wholesome, better-tasting end-product. If aftertaste is affecting your use of stevia, for instance, you might use less stevia by adding in monk fruit. Monk fruit supplier Guilin Layn demonstrates this with Lovia, a branded blend of stevia and monk fruit. Guilin Layn says it is the only company able to produce both ingredients, GRAS-affirmed and on a critical-mass scale.

While monk fruit travels a great distance to get to U.S. mouths, there’s a deeper good in its production: sustainable agriculture and sustainable business.

“A cultivation infrastructure and resource has been in place for literally hundreds of years,” says Chris Tower, president of Guilin Layn’s U.S. branch in Newport Beach, CA. “We’ve tapped into and further supported this infrastructure, when it comes to agricultural sustainability and advances in agronomy technology, and we are working with the local governments to introduce a new opportunity to support local farmers and local agriculture.”

“Typically these farmers will grow crops like ginger and peach, and they’ll harvest them, take them to market, and get whatever they get for them,” says Thorrold of BioVittoria’s monk fruit farmers. “Now, they have a relationship with us in which we handle the market side and we plan production. We’re able to go to the farmers, supply them with our own specially bred seedlings, train and supervise them while the fruit is being grown, and then harvest the fruit. Because we contract to buy their fruit, they’re now growing a crop that they know they’ll have a buyer for and they know the price for. We’re giving them a crop that’s significantly less of a risk than other crops they would grow.”

With monk fruit leaving its China roots for a greater global sweetener market, advances in nutrition science and specialized breeding should soon bring this sweetener to great new heights.