Monk fruit and stevia are non-nutritive sweeteners that are commonly used as substitutes for sugar.
They have a variety of purported health benefits and have minimal effects on blood sugar levels, making them safer than sugar for those with diabetes.
These intense sweeteners are sometimes mixed with sugar alcohols, such as erythritol and xylitol, that may cause intestinal discomfort.
Factors to consider in choosing a sweetener include cost, taste, purpose, and whether other ingredients have been mixed in that may cause you problems.
Monk fruit and stevia are both non-nutritive sweeteners that are commonly used as substitutes for, or alternatives to, regular sugar. They have similar purported health benefits, such as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and are generally safe for those with diabetes. However, monk fruit and stevia sweeteners may have negative gastrointestinal side effects if you have IBS. In this article we’ll look at what monk fruit and stevia have in common, how they differ, and how to decide if either is right for you.
Monk fruit, also known as luo han guo, is the small, round fruit of Siraitia grosvenorii Swingle, a member of the gourd family native to China and Southeast Asia. It is believed to have been cultivated for over 200 years by monks in the Guangxi province of China, which is how it got its common name. Monk fruit has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to relieve sore throats and coughs and to clear phlegm. (Source)
Monk fruit gets its sweetness from compounds called mogrosides. Mogrosides are up to 250 times sweeter than sucrose, which is found in sugar cane and many fruits and vegetables. It has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a safe sugar substitute or sugar alternative for everyone, including children and pregnant women. Monk fruit appeals to those with diabetes because of its purported anti-diabetic properties. (Source, Source)
One of the most notable benefits of monk fruit is its purported anti-diabetic properties.
AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) is an enzyme that works to balance the energy we provide our bodies (in the form of food) with the energy we expend (in exercise and normal metabolic processes). One of AMPK’s jobs is to help regulate blood sugar, and oral diabetes medications have been developed that lower blood sugar indirectly by activating AMPK. (Source)
Animal studies suggest the mogrosides in stevia also activate AMPK and may be effective in treating diabetes. However, more studies are needed in order to fully understand the anti-diabetic properties of mogrosides. (Source, Source)
The blood sugar-regulating hormone insulin is produced by the pancreas, a digestive and endocrine organ tucked up behind the stomach. Damage to cells in the pancreas by oxidative stress is implicated in development of type 2 diabetes. Because of their antioxidant properties, mogrosides in monk fruit may protect pancreatic cells from oxidative stress and help restore normal insulin secretion. (Source, Source)
A study published in Pharmaceutical Biology found that mogrosides reduced inflammation in damaged lung tissue by inhibiting inflammatory mediators, which are messengers that act on cells to promote an inflammatory response. More work is needed, of course but this suggests monk fruit may have protective and preventive effects on inflammation in the body. (Source)
Monk fruit may help improve physical fatigue. During intense exercise, our body produces lactic acid that builds up in our muscles before entering our bloodstream. Studies in mice have found monk fruit extract decreased lactic acid levels and reduced fatigue. (Source, Source)
Table sugar is a bulk sweetener, which serves purposes in addition to sweetening. In baked goods, for example, sugar contributes to moistness, browning, and a pleasing mouthfeel. Monk fruit, on the other hand, is an intense sweetener — it is used in such small amounts that it doesn’t offer the other advantages of sugar. To add bulk, modify its sweetness, or mask any unpleasant aftertaste, sugar alcohols such as erythritol and xylitol are sometimes added to monk fruit products. These additions make certain monk fruit sweeteners unsuitable if you are following a low FODMAP diet, and may be a problem if you have inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS). (Source, Source)
Stevia, another non-nutritive sweetener, is derived from Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, a shrub that’s native to North and South America. Stevia rebaudiana has been used for over 1,500 years by the Guaraní, an indigenous people in South America. The leaves of the plant have also traditionally been used for hundreds of years to sweeten teas, medicines, and as a “sweet treat” in Paraguay and Brazil. (Source)
Stevia is about 200 to 300 times sweeter than regular table sugar. The compounds responsible for the sweetness of S. rebaudiana are known as steviol glycosides and comprise more than 40 different types, including stevioside, rebaudiosides, steviolbioside, and dulcosides.
Back in 1991, the FDA banned stevia products from sale in the United States due to concerns that non-nutritive sweeteners could cause cancer. As of 2008, however, the FDA has considered purified stevia extracts to be generally recognized as safe — GRAS — and approved for use as food additives. Stevia leaves and crude stevia extracts are not approved, as per the FDA they have not been proven safe for consumption. (Source, Source, Source)
Stevia may help maintain blood sugar levels. A study done in 2010 found that when stevia was substituted for sucrose (table sugar), participants had significantly reduced blood glucose and insulin levels, while still feeling just as full and satisfied as they did when they consumed sugar.
Another study that was done in 2011 also found that stevia extract had antidiabetic effects on rats. However, a 2020 study in mice fed a high fat diet found that consumption of stevia did not lower blood sugar levels or improve insulin sensitivity. The bottom line is that we don’t yet know if stevia can treat or prevent diabetes in humans without other dietary interventions, such as reducing fat intake. (Source, Source, Source)
Stevia has been investigated as a treatment for high blood pressure with promising results. A small study reported in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 2000 found stevia reduced blood pressure almost as much as antihypertensive drugs, with fewer side effects. A study published in Clinical Therapeutics in 2003 reported similar results. (Source, Source)
Studies in both rats and humans have yielded results suggesting stevia reduces levels of “bad” (low density) cholesterol while increasing levels of “good” (high density) cholesterol. These studies also saw reductions in body weight. (Source, Source)
Similar to monk fruit, some stevia products may contain sugar alcohols that can cause gastrointestinal issues for those who are sensitive to them, leading to nausea, indigestion, or bloating. This would also make sugar alcohol-containing products unsuitable for those on the low FODMAP diet or with IBS.
Researchers have found that stevia may change the composition of the gut microbiota, causing dysbiosis. One study in mice from the journal FEMS Microbiology Ecology found that the ratio of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes, which are associated with obesity, to other common types of gut bacteria was increased by stevia consumption. However, more research is needed to confirm the full effects of stevia on microbiota diversity. (Source, Source)
Monk fruit and stevia have similar purported health benefits, although more research is needed to determine whether these effects hold up outside the laboratory. Both are considered suitable for diabetics, but both are sometimes mixed with sugar alcohols that may be problematic if you are following a low FODMAP diet or have IBS. When choosing a sweetener, consider its availability, cost, taste, what you will be using the sweetener for, and whether it contains other ingredients that could cause you problems. If in doubt, check in with your primary health care provider to make sure you are choosing a sweetener that fits your own unique needs and lifestyle.