Monk fruit (also known as Chinese luo han guo) has been cultivated for culinary and therapeutic use in China for generations and some sources claim that monk fruit was first grown by Buddhist monks in China more than 300 years ago. The fruit has also been exported and consumed by Chinese communities throughout East and Southeast Asia, the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe for at least a hundred years.
According to a literature review written in 1999, monk fruit has been commercially available in the US since at least 1917: “The earliest report of Lo Han in America is Professor Groff’s report that during a visit in 1917 to United States Department of Agriculture botanist Dr Frederick Coville’s office, Groff was shown a Lo Han fruit obtained from a local Chinese store in Washington, DC, that was purchased by Dr Coville and Dr Walter T. Swingle.”
In 1941, Dr Swingle recorded that monk fruit was being exported to the US and other overseas countries: “About 1,000 tons of the green fruits are delivered every year to the drying sheds at Kweilin. The fruits lose much weight in drying and are then packed in boxes and shipped to Canton where most of the crop is consumed, but large numbers of the “lo han” fruits are exported to the Cantonese living in the United States and other overseas countries.”
The review also notes that according to Professor Groff, monk fruit was frequently used as the main ingredient in “cooling drinks” or “cooling tea” as well as being cooked with pork.
The Chinese book ‘Fruit as Medicine’ published in 1986 reported that the preparation method for monk fruit is to boil or simmer the fruit in water and drink it as a herb tea. As an ingredient in cooking, the fruits are added directly to soups and stews to flavour the food.
In common with many plant-based foods in China, monk fruit’s traditional uses include various therapeutic applications. The Encyclopedia of Traditional Chinese Medicine recommends the use of the dried fruits as good for lung complaints including dry coughs and specifies a consumption rate of 10 to 15 g or one dried fruit boiled in water per day.
Monk Fruit Agronomy And Supply Chain
Monk fruit is a perennial vine from the cucurbit family but it is common for growers who are supplying monk fruit to ingredient processing companies to replant their orchard each year. This practice ensures a reliable yield for the farmer as new seedlings are planted each year. The move to annual planting and guaranteed minimum prices for farmers have been key factors in the development of a stable and reliable monk fruit supply chain.
More than 80 percent of the annual monk fruit crop is grown in Northern Guangxi province, with the traditional growing areas found around Guilin. The fruit is harvested from September through to the end of November, and it is common for the fruit to be dried before being transported. It is the dried fruit that is most commonly found in Chinese grocery stores outside mainland China.
Monk Fruit As A Natural Sweetener
The sweet compounds (mogrosides) in monk fruit were isolated and identified by C. H. Lee in 1975, but the first commercial development of monk fruit as a natural sweetener was by Procter & Gamble in the early 1990s.
Following US food and drug administration (FDA) approval for monk fruit in 2010, it has become widely used as a natural sweetener in various food and beverage applications.
The characteristic intense sweetness of monk fruit is due to the presence of mogrosides, in particular mogroside V. Mogrosides are very stable molecules, which are formed of varying numbers of glucose units from 2 to 6, attached to carbon 3 and carbon 24 (indicated as R1 and R2 in the figure) on the triterpene backbone.
Products And Manufacturing Processes
Monk fruit is sold as a concentrated fruit juice and as a powdered extract. Either product allows for formulators to remove up to half the added sugar in food and beverage products.
Monk fruit juice concentrate forms a 65⁰ brix juice concentrate that is produced according to WHO Codex juice processing standards. Because of the naturally occurring mogrosides, monk fruit juice is about 10 times sweetener than grape juice.
Monk fruit powdered extracts are produced by using hot water to extract the soluble solids from the fruit, after which resins are used to further purify the product to typically 50 percent mogroside V. Monk fruit powdered extract is about 150 times sweeter than sugar.
Both monk fruit juice and monk fruit extract powder can effectively reduce sugar by up to 50 percent in a broad range of food and beverage products.
One of the reasons for the increasing popularity of monk fruit is the fact that it has a very clean taste profile without the bitter and metallic off-flavours associated with some other natural sweeteners. Monk fruit does have a slightly delayed sweetness onset and a slight lingering sweetness, and as a result, monk fruit is often blended with other low molecular weight sweeteners like sucrose, or erythritol if the formulator is looking for a deeper calorie reduction.
Monk fruit is also commonly blended with stevia to achieved a more rounded and sugar-like sweetness than can be achieved with stevia alone.
According to data from Innova, beverage products are the single largest category for monk fruit making up approximately 37 percent of all new product launches containing monk fruit. This category is expected to continue to drive growth in the future, particularly for functional beverage categories such as sports nutrition where consumers are actively looking for products with less sugar and natural ingredients.
In early 2010, the US FDA approved a monk fruit natural sweetener made by Monk Fruit Corporation. This was the first time monk fruit was approved for use as a natural sweetener outside Asia. In Asia, monk fruit is approved for use as a food additive, food ingredient, and traditional food in a number of countries including China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand.
Monk fruit juice concentrate has the advantage of being regulated as a food rather than a food additive sweetener. As a result, monk fruit juice concentrate is an excellent choice where formulators are looking for a clean label without a sweetener additive on the ingredient list. In most countries, monk fruit powdered extract is regulated as a food additive sweetener.
Today, many of the world’s largest food and beverage companies have launched products which include monk fruit as an ingredient. While monk fruit has appeared in more than 800 product launches in the US, it is still relatively little used in Asia as a natural sugar alternative.
Monk fruit is however becoming increasingly important in the natural sweetener toolkit as food and beverage companies in Asia respond to the increasing consumer demand for less sugar and natural ingredients. It is clear than monk fruit will be an important ingredient for formulators who are looking for clean-label solutions to reduce calories and sugar in a wide range of foods and beverages.