Most of us probably couldn’t pick out a monk fruit in the produce aisle, and truth be told, it’s not likely to catch your attention amidst luscious lemons, colorful apples, and vibrant oranges. But the monk fruit is getting a great deal of attention these days from health-conscious foodies, sugar-free devotees, and those in the diabetes community.
Monk fruit, or lo han guo, is a small green melon native to southern China and named after the monks who first cultivated it centuries ago. The health benefits of the fruit have been well-known in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for decades, but its sweet little secret is finally making it into the wellness mainstream.
What’s so great about monk fruit?
Monk fruit sweetener is made from extract derived from dried fruit. The extract is 150-250 times sweeter than table sugar, has zero calories and carbs, and does not raise blood glucose levels.
Most nonnutritive sweeteners can cause side effects like gas, bloating, or allergic reactions. And some artificial sweeteners like Equal and Splenda are controversial. In the case of monk fruit sweeteners, there are no known side effects.
The Food and Drug Administration has deemed monk fruit “generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” for everyone, including pregnant women and children. Even so, because monk fruit is relatively new to the mass market, there are no scientific studies on the effects of long-term use.
Health Benefits of Monk Fruit
Has Anti-cancer Effects
Cancer may occur due to a variety of environmental factors. Chronic oxidative damage, carcinogens, nutrient deficiency, and an inadequate supply of oxygen to tissue (respiratory perfusion) all contribute to the initiation and progression of cancer by causing genetic stress.
Monk fruit contains a variety of compounds that have anti-cancer effects:
- Mogroside IV suppressed throat and colorectal cancers in mice (dose-dependent).
- Mogroside V inhibited tumor growth in mice with pancreatic cancer. It also inhibited the growth of new blood vessels (angiogenesis) in mice with cancer, which helps reduce tumor growth.
- Mogrosides inhibited the proliferation of cancer cells in mice.
- Cucurbitacin E inhibited the growth of human breast cancer cells in the lab.
- Triterpene glycosides significantly inhibited the effects of carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) on mouse skin tumors
Selective mutations allow limitless replication and evasion of programmed cell death (apoptosis) by cancerous cells.
DNA repair is crucial in warding off these mutations. Mogrosides increase protective genes involved in DNA repair, genomic stability, and apoptosis (PARP, p53, and MAPK9).
Furthermore, a key signature of cancer cells that differentiates them from healthy cells is how they burn fuel to create energy (ATP).
Healthy cells use oxygen in their mitochondria to produce more energy than burning glucose alone (fermentation).
In contrast, cancer cells have increased glucose metabolism as a result of insufficient mitochondrial respiration (even in the presence of oxygen).
Because of this, promising therapies are being produced to target the metabolic parameters of cancer cells, including limiting their fuel by restricting sugar intake.
If used as a replacement for sugar, monk fruit may have synergistic anti-tumor effects. It limits the fuel (blood glucose) cancer needs to thrive and protects the genes that initiate cancer cell death (p53).
Monk Fruit Is Anti-Inflammatory
A diet high in simple sugars and deficient of essential nutrients can lead to cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal irritability, and allergies. Chronic inflammation is at the root of the most prevalent diseases.
In mouse cells, monk fruit extract inhibited the production of inflammatory molecules (COX-2 and IL-6).
Administering monk fruit extract before exposing mice to a carcinogen blocked the induction of inflammation.
Histamine increases blood vessel leakiness, which enhances inflammation, to allow immune cells to engage pathogens in infected tissue.
After repeated administration, both monk fruit extract and mogrosides inhibited the release of histamine in mice (mast cell-dependent).
Is a Potent Antioxidant
Free radical damage alters the cellular environment. Excessive damage leads to tissue destruction (necrosis) and eventually organ dysfunction.
In the lab, mogroside V exhibited inhibitory effects on superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, and hydroxyl radicals, as well as protection against DNA oxidative damage (based on chemiluminescence).
Mogroside treatment of a mouse pancreatic tumor decreased the intracellular concentration of reactive oxygen species.
Monk Fruit May Combat Obesity and Diabetes
During type II diabetes, inflammation damages the cells of the pancreas, impairing insulin secretion. As blood sugar rises, the kidneys get damaged, releasing greater amounts of albumin out through urine. This is known as diabetic nephropathy.
The therapeutic effects of monk fruit on diabetic rabbits was studied by administering an extract for 4 weeks.
It significantly decreased sugar, total cholesterol, and triglyceride levels in the blood, while increasing HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol, which is inversely correlated with hardening of the arteries).
Monk fruit extract prevented the rise of blood sugar in mice when given 3 minutes before administering maltose.
It also reduced blood sugar and urinary albumin levels in diabetic rats, indicating that it can improve kidney damage caused by diabetes.
In a cell model, monk fruit stimulated insulin secretion and inhibited triglyceride accumulation.
Mogroside antioxidants protected the kidney and pancreas from free radical damage (lipid peroxidation).
Components of monk fruit prevent fat cells from maturing. Mogrol suppresses fat production (adipogenesis) by inhibiting the enzymes that convert stem cells to fat cells (adipocytes).
Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress contribute to many diseases of aging (cancer, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s). The most widely studied aspect of senescence is an increase in systemic inflammatory cytokines.
Mogrosides decreased blood markers associated with lower grip strength and gait speed in older adults.
These effects may be due to its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity.
Mogrosides are part of a class of compounds called saponins. Saponins act as natural surfactants.
Surfactants decrease surface tension and play a major role in preventing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, and cystic fibrosis.
Mogroside IIIE possesses anti-fibrotic faculty, which decreases cell surface tension and prevents pulmonary fibrosis by inhibiting inflammation and extracellular matrix deposition (by lowering myeloperoxidase, TGF-beta, and MMP9) in mice.
Promote Heart Health
Accumulating LDL cholesterol in macrophages contributes to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). Lowering LDL cholesterol reduces the risk of heart disease, while HDL cholesterol levels are inversely correlated with hardening of the arteries and heart disease.
Administering mogroside extract to diabetic mice for over 4 weeks significantly decreased total cholesterol and increased HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol).
Monk Fruit May Reduce Fatigue
Monk fruit extract decreased physical fatigue in mice in a dose-dependent manner. The treated mice had extended swimming times compared to the control group.
The extract also enhanced endurance by increasing liver and muscle glycogen, while decreasing blood lactic acid and serum urea nitrogen (SUN).
Monk fruit extract also stimulated the production of new mitochondria (by increasing PGC-1ɑ activity).
Protects the Liver
Liver inflammation slows down bile flow, which is detrimental to fat metabolism and the excretion of cholesterol, drugs, and toxic metabolites. Disrupting bile acid metabolism clogs the gallbladder (cholestasis) and causes fatty liver disease, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.
Mogroside helps break down cholesterol and protect the liver from oxidative damage. In diabetic mice, mogroside treatment reactivated liver antioxidant enzymes (superoxide dismutase, and glutathione peroxidase), which play a critical role in detoxification.
Monk Fruit Protects Against Infections
The fruit has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a sore throat and cough.
A compound of monk fruit extract called siraitiflavandiol is antimicrobial against the growth of Streptococcus mutans, Porphyromonas gingivalis, and Candida albicans in cell culture.
In the lab, components of monk fruit prevented the growth of oral bacteria and fungal species.
After repeated administration, monk fruit extract prevented allergic symptoms (nasal rubbing or scratching) in mice. The mogrosides and extract inhibited the release of histamine from mast cells.
Mogrosides significantly enhanced cellular immunity in immunosuppressed mice (by promoting phagocytosis and T lymphocyte proliferation).
A meta-analysis on monk fruit found that extracts and individual compounds in monk fruit are non-toxic according to existing research.
Monk fruit juice concentrate is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Association as an ingredient in conventional food and infant and toddler foods, as stated on the FDA website.