September 12, 2021

Monk Fruit vs Stevia: The Lowdown on these 2

Introduction

There are SO many choices for sweeteners these days. It can be super overwhelming honestly. We often talk sweeteners with clients, so we wanted to break down a few of them that come up quite frequently during client sessions. Today, we are focusing specifically on monk fruit vs stevia. To give a little backdrop though, let’s back up a bit. 

sugar flowing over a spoon with a raspberry on top

Natural Sugars vs Artificial Sweeteners

Natural sugars are those found naturally in whole foods, think the fructose found in fruit or the lactose found in milk. Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugars aka chemically modified and typically produced in a lab. These include saccharin (brand name Sweet n Low), aspartame (brand name Equal) and sucralose (brand name Splenda), to name a few examples. The vocab with sweeteners gets tricky, because sometimes artificial sweeteners are made from “natural” ingredients that then undergo processing. This is the case with stevia for example, which is made from a refined stevia leaf extract. 

One of the biggest differences between natural sugars and artificial sweeteners is that we receive energy (i.e., calories) from natural sweeteners, however we do not receive (much) energy from artificial non-nutritive sweeteners. If you’ve ever taken organic chemistry, the term “isomer” may ring a bell. Isomers are molecules with the same molecular formula, but a different arrangement of the atoms in space (does the picture below on the left look familiar from orgo?!). Sugars and sweeteners can be isomers of one another, or very similar to one another, but still have some key differences in their shape. These differences impact whether or not our cells can take the sweetener from the bloodstream into our cells and use it for energy. 

 

 

side by side comparison of atoms in space and a coffee table

Too nerdy for you? Okay think about it this way. You are trying to get a new coffee table into the doorway of your living room. There are all shapes and sizes of coffee tables, right? Some will fit through the doorway, and some will not. Our bodies know how to process natural sugars. Think of natural sugars as your standard coffee table with a regular old rectangular shape. That is going to fit through the doorway without a problem. 

However, there are lots of other shapes and sizes of coffee tables that are not going to fit. These oddball shapes and sizes are your artificial sweeteners. You might be able to leave that fancy coffee table in another room (think of this as enjoying the taste of a sweetener), but you are not getting that baby into the living room (think of this as not getting the sweetener into the cells where the body uses it for energy). 

Monk Fruit vs Stevia

monk fruit vs stevia: monk fruit with arrow to monkfruit sweetener, and stevia leaf with arrow to stevia in the raw sweetener

As compared to artificial sweeteners, monk fruit and stevia both come from plants. Technically. This is why both seem to have a bit of a halo effect as compared to artificial sweeteners. Is that halo effect well-deserved? Let’s get into it. 

While the previous artificial sweeteners I mentioned are approved by the FDA, both monk fruit and stevia are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the FDA. Approval means the FDA reviewed data and scientific studies to determine a food additive is approved [2]. GRAS means that a substance is generally recognized as safe by a consensus of experts, so people outside the FDA [3]. Both stevia and monk fruit are considered to be non-nutritive sweeteners [1], similar to aspartame, sucralose, etc. This means they provide little to no caloric value. 

Monk Fruit

Monk fruit, also called luo han guo, is a small, green melon-looking gourd native to Southeast Asia. Monk fruit sweeteners are made from the fruit’s extract, which comes from its pulp and a group of compounds called mogrosides. Mogrosides are about 100-250 times sweeter than table sugar [1, 4]. Monk fruit sweeteners sold commercially typically contain a blend of other sweeteners, often erythritol (a sugar alcohol) and dextrose.  Overall, monk fruit sweeteners are non-nutritive, meaning they do not provide calories or any of the macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat). If mixed with erythritol (as most products available are), there will be some carbohydrate content due to the sugar alcohols. 

Monk fruit has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to treat a variety of ailments. This can give it a bit of a halo effect. One could argue they are a “natural” sugar alternative since they come from a plant. This is as compared to aspartame, sucralose and the other artificial sweeteners. There is some evidence that mogrosides can reduce oxidative stress and combat inflammation in mice [5, 6, 12], which is great. However, there is little to no research replicating these findings in humans. This does not mean there won’t be in the future, but monk fruit sweeteners are still relatively new (the sweeteners, not the actual monk fruit which is old and wise). However, we can’t generalize research results with mogrosides in rodent cells to walking, breathing humans consuming monk fruit sweeteners as part of a complex diet. 

Stevia

Stevia is a plant. Doesn’t look like a plant though when you buy it, am I right? When you buy a stevia-based sweetener in the store, you’re actually buying a highly refined stevia leaf extract. So this would be products like Truvia or Stevia in the Raw, for example. Most of these products are a blend of stevia leaf extract, called rebaudioside A (Reb-A), erythritol (the same sugar alcohol we talked about with monk fruit sweeteners), and sometimes dextrose or maltodextrin.  Stevia leaf extract is estimated to be 200-400 times sweeter than table sugar [1]. 

There is some evidence to suggest that stevia Reb-A has some negative effects on gut microbiota composition in rats [8]. Not ideal. However, some animal studies have shown improvements in blood glucose and insulin levels [9], as well as combating oxidative stress [10], so that’s promising. In terms of the benefits of stevia, there is more research with animals than humans to date. This does not mean stevia is harmful. It is GRAS after all [1]. But, to me this does mean more research is needed to determine health impacts on humans.

Conclusion

Nutrition is personal. There are a lot of options on the market. Truthfully, I’m not a raving fan of any of them. But that’s me. If I want something sweet, I’m going to find myself a nice treat. Sometimes that’s a piece of dark chocolate (hello, nitric oxide), or a piece of fruit, or sometimes it’s a cookie or a pie I baked with love and real sugar.

Some scientists have postulated that acclimating yourself to sweeteners can increase cravings for more sugar and sweets [7]. This is because artificial and non-nutritive sweeteners activate part of the neural pathways that regular sugar does, but slightly differently and in a more incomplete way. Because of that, we may seek out other/more sugars and the like. 

Sugar is NOT inherently bad. But as most of us know, there is a tipping point. Too much is going to increase our blood sugar levels. Over time when you have repeated blood sugar spikes, this increases risk for prediabetes and diabetes. Chronic disease prevention is central to our mission here at Nutriving, so we love helping people find balance and experiment with what helps them feel their best.

If you want to talk further about the role of sweeteners in your own life, we’re always here to discuss with you! You can set up a discovery call or shoot us an email and see if we’re a good fit for you. If you want to dip your toes in with us a bit slower, be sure to check out our other blog posts, recipes, meditations, and soon to be coming — our podcast! Stay tuned :) 

FAQ

How to pronounce stevia

Stee – vee – uh

 

Does stevia expire?

Most stevia products last for a few years, but always be sure to check for an expiration date on your packaging.

 

Does Monk fruit have an aftertaste? 

To many, the aftertaste of Stevia is more pronounced than the aftertaste of monk fruit. 

 

Does monk fruit break a fast?

It depends on how strict your fast is and what brand of monk fruit sweetener you are using. One of the most common commercial brands is Lakanto. One teaspoon of Lakanto’s classic monk fruit sweetener has 4 grams of carbohydrate from the erythritol present in it. Most packaging claims this is “net zero carbs” because our bodies do not digest sugar alcohols. If that’s 4 grams of carbohydrate from sugar alcohols is deal breaker for your fast, then yes monk fruit would break a fast for you.

 

Is monk fruit low fodmap?

Monk fruit and stevia are generally considered low FODMAP, however some authorities say to avoid them during the elimination phase of a low FODMAP diet. Sugar alcohols, however, may pose an issue for those with gut health disturbances [11]. Since monk fruit sweeteners and stevia both are often blended with erythritol, it may be best to avoid them particularly during an elimination phase of the diet. Of course, this is a very individual issue and should be discussed with a Registered Dietitian specializing in digestive health. 

 

What is a monk fruit erythritol blend? 

Most of the commercially available monk fruit sweeteners are in fact blended with erythritol, which is a sugar alcohol. For people with digestive disorders like IBS, food intolerances, or just a generally sensitive stomach, sugar alcohols can cause some GI discomfort. If that’s you, it might be wise to stay clear of monk fruit sweeteners. Again, always best to work with a Registered Dietitian specializing in digestive health to figure out the best solution for you. 

 

Sources

[1] Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States. US Department of Food and Agriculture. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/additional-information-about-high-intensity-sweeteners-permitted-use-food-united-states. Accessed September 9, 2021.

[2] How U.S. FDA’s GRAS Notification Program Works. US Department of Food and Agriculture. https://www.fda.gov/food/generally-recognized-safe-gras/how-us-fdas-gras-notification-program-works. Accessed September 9, 2021. 

[3] Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). US Department of Food and Agriculture. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-ingredients-packaging/generally-recognized-safe-gras 

[4] Itkin, M.; Davidovich-Rikanati, R.; Cohen, S.; Portnoy, V.; Doron-Faigenboim, A.; Oren, E.; Freilich, S.; Tzuri, G.; Baranes, N.; Shen, S.; Petreikov, M.; Sertchook, R.; Ben-Dor, S.; Gottlieb, H.; Hernandez, A.; Nelson, D. R.; Paris, H. S.; Tadmor, Y.; Burger, Y.; Lewinsohn, E.; Katzir, N.; Schaffer, A. (2016). “The biosynthetic pathway of the nonsugar, high-intensity sweetener mogroside V from Siraitia grosvenorii”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 113 (47): E7619–E7628. doi:10.1073/pnas.1604828113

[5] Zou C, Zhang Q, Zhang S. Mogroside IIIE attenuates gestational diabetes mellitus through activating of AMPK signaling pathway in mice. J Pharmacol Sci. 2018; 138:161–66. 10.1016/j.jphs.2018.09.008 

[6] Zhang X, Song Y, Ding Y, Wang W, Liao L, Zhong J, Sun P, Lei F, Zhang Y, Xie W. Effects of Mogrosides on High-Fat-Diet-Induced Obesity and Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease in Mice. Molecules. 2018; 23:E1894. 10.3390/molecules23081894

[7] Yang, Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Yale J Biol Med. 2010 Jun; 83(2): 101–108.

[8] Nettleton JE, Klancic T, Schick A, Choo AC, Shearer J, Borgland SL, Chleilat F, Mayengbam S, Reimer RA. Low-Dose Stevia (Rebaudioside A) Consumption Perturbs Gut Microbiota and the Mesolimbic Dopamine Reward System. Nutrients. 2019 Jun; 11(6): 1248. doi: 10.3390/nu11061248

[9] Ahmad U, Ahmad RS. Anti diabetic property of aqueous extract of Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni leaves in Streptozotocin-induced diabetes in albino rats. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2018; 18: 179. Published online 2018 Jun 11. doi: 10.1186/s12906-018-2245-2

[10] Ramos-Tovar E, Hernández-Aquino E, Casas-Grajales S, Buendia-Montaño LD, Galindo-Gómez S, Camacho J, Tsutsumi V, Muriel P. Stevia Prevents Acute and Chronic Liver Injury Induced by Carbon Tetrachloride by Blocking Oxidative Stress through Nrf2 Upregulation. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2018; 2018: 3823426. Published online 2018 Apr 19. doi: 10.1155/2018/3823426

[11] Rhys-Jones D. Sweeteners and the low FODMAP diet. FODMAP blog: Monash University. https://www.monashfodmap.com/blog/sweeteners-and-low-fodmap-diet/. Published online 20 May 2020. 

[12] Di R, Huang M-T, Ho C-T. Anti-inflammatory Activities of Mogrosides from Momordica grosvenori in Murine Macrophages and a Murine Ear Edema Model. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2011, 59, 13, 7474–7481. Published online June 1, 2011. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf201207m

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

Photo by Myriam Zilles on Unsplash

Photo by Terry Vlisidis on Unsplash

Photo by Yolk CoWorking – Krakow on Unsplash

Photo on Shutterstock: Luo Han Guo aka Monk fruit natural herbal remedy and sugar on brown background. Powerful healthy sweetener. By Eskymaks

Photo stevia leaf plant via Pixabay

Photo from lakanto.com

Photo from intheraw.com

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About the Author: Kelly Wagner, MS, RD, LDN

I'm a Registered Dietitian (RD) based in Chicago, IL. I have worked in both inpatient and outpatient settings, including dialysis, ICU, as well as one-on-one nutrition counseling and groups.