Research done by the Massachusetts General Hospital in August 2021 showed that cutting down 20% of sugar from packaged foods and 40% from beverages could prevent 2.48 million cases of cardiovascular disease, 490,000 deaths related to cardiovascular disease, and 750,000 diabetes cases in the U.S. This and many other similar studies have influenced public perception towards high sugar foods. The International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) 2022 Food and Health Survey found 73% of consumers say they are trying to limit or avoid sugars in their diet. Unsurprisingly, despite their desire for low sugar foods, consumers are also unwilling to give up on taste.

A May 2022 study by IFC revealed that 86% of consumers considered taste as the most important reason for purchasing a specific food or beverage brand. To meet these seemingly opposing demands, food formulators have turned to intensely sweet non-calorific sweeteners which deliver the taste but without the calories normally associated with sugar. Even within non-calorific sweeteners, the trend is shifting towards naturally sourced alternatives which are believed to be safer than their synthetic peers. Among the natural sweeteners being explored by food and beverage manufacturers is monk fruit, a small round fruit native to southern China that is calorie-free and up to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

More Than Just A Sweetener

Although relatively novel in commercial food and beverage production, the Chinese and Indonesians have used monk fruit for decades as a natural sweetener in foods and as a household remedy for nourishing the lungs and treating sunstroke, dire thirst, constipation, sore throat, cough, and cold.

With technology, scientists have been able to isolate mogrosides as the compound responsible for the intense sweetness that Monk Fruit is known for. Unlike most other natural sweeteners, including the widely used Stevia, mogroside has been found to have a better aftertaste profile than other natural options. “Monk fruit is arguably a better tasting product,” said Chris Tower, president of Layn USA, Newport Beach, Calif., which is involved in both stevia extracts and monk fruit extracts. “Stevia largely needs to be masked with other ingredients.”

Thom King, CEO at sweetener specialist Icon Foods also believes that Monk Fruit has interesting masking and sweetness modulation qualities that come through when monk fruit is blended with other glycosides like stevia. “The combination of the two can mask off-notes in many applications as well as masking each other’s respective offnotes, being melon rind with monk fruit and licorice with stevia,” said King.

Mogroside benefits go even further to support better health outcomes. Research by Suzuki 2017, found mogroside V to have a strong antioxidant capacity, effectively scavenging reactive oxygen species (ROS) to help the body’s efforts against oxidative stress. In a different study by Jin & Lee, 2012, monk fruit extract was found to be able to help consumers better manage blood glucose levels.

Food And Beverage Makers Embrace Monk Fruit

Monk fruit’s better tasting profile and superior nutritional profile has aroused interest from beverage makers keen to reduce the sugar content of their products. Blake’s Hard Cider (BHC) is among the pioneer users of monk fruit. The company noted that with monk fruit, it was able to limit the calories in its Sorta Pop probiotic soda to less than 25.

Kraft Heinz Co., is also on the record saying that by using monk fruit it was able to reduce the sugar in its Capri Sun juice drink by 40%. In 2022, New York based Swoon announced the launch of its Zero Sugar Swoon Sweet Tea “made with steeped and brewed black tea and sweetened with naturally sugar-free monk fruit.” Other products in the market with monk fruit either as a full substitute or in ratios include Hard Bubbly from FUN WINE, and “Basis,” a high electrolyte ready-to-drink from Denver Bodega among others.

Monk fruit sweeteners use transcended the beverage aisle and have been used in dairy products, desserts, candies and condiments. Because they are stable at high temperatures, monk fruit sweeteners can be used in baked goods. Among bakeries that are utilizing Monk sweeter are Bakery on Main (An American bakery that uses monk fruit sweetener in a range of gluten-free and grain-free products, including granolas and bars) Sweet Loren’s, Simple Mills, Nourish Snacks in Australia, and Baked Bliss in Canada.

Replacing sugar in baked goods is however not a straightforward process as Sugar, like every ingredient, serves a purpose in baked goods beyond adding sweetness and flavor. Sugar contributes to moistness by binding water, provides structure and leavening, aids in browning and crispness via the Maillard reaction, and acts as a preservative by slowing bacterial growth. When used for baking, pure monk fruit sweetener may therefore be less desirable as it does not have the bulk that sugar provides to a recipe. To make up for the sweetener’s weakness, bakers have found success by mixing monk fruit sweetener with erythritol which adds bulk to the recipe resulting in a product that looks and tastes more like a product made with sugar. Icon Foods, Portland, recently introduced Icon Sweet, a blend of allulose, erythritol, stevia, and monk fruit. According to Thom King, the company CEO, the blend is a clean-label sweetening system that also provides functionality, such as participating in Maillard browning and is at par with sucrose in terms of sweetness.

The proprietary blend of monk fruit and stevia extract brings sweetness levels to that of sugar and adds useful masking that eliminates any off-notes occasionally imparted by stevia and monk fruit according to studies. Allulose can activate leavening and it can participate in Maillard caramelization, making it an important addition to the sugar alternative blend. When allulose is used, using a precise amount of erythritol is recommended as erythritol suppresses the allulose’s tendency to burn at temperatures above 280˚F. The synergy of all these clean-label compounds creates a symphony of neutral sweeteners with no added sugars to the Nutritional Facts panel.

More Suppliers Add Monk Fruit To Their Portfolio

With the popularity of monk fruit on the rise, more suppliers have started producing monk fruit-based sugar substitutes to capitalise on the demand from food and beverage manufacturers. Among them are Lakanto, a leading brand in monk fruit sweeteners, offering a range of products, including sweetener packets, syrups, and baking mixes.

To accelerate the route to market, ADM partnered GLG Life Tech Corporation (GLG) in 2016. “GLG will produce an extensive array of low-calorie sweeteners made from stevia and monk fruit, while ADM will be the exclusive global marketer and distributor of those ingredients to food and beverage companies worldwide,” said Rodney Schanefelt, then Director of sugar and highintensity sweeteners, for ADM.

Van Wankum Ingredients, a global supplier of food ingredients also has monk fruit extracts in liquid, powder, and granular form for use in the beverage industry. Layn USA, a subsidiary of Guilin Layn Natural Ingredients, offers monk fruit sweeteners under a Gu-Luo trademark. Gu-Luo has been shown to reduce sugar in applications by 50% through the addition of monk fruit extract at 0.5% along with additional water to make up for lost volume. The company also offers Lovia, which is a blend of Rebaudioside A extracted

London-based Tate & Lyle, on the other hand, offers monk fruit extract under the Purefruit brand. According to the company, the product is a “clean label” as the manufacturing includes a water-based extraction process along with filtration to clean the extracts’ taste and leave no bitter or metallic off-taste. Cumberland Packing Corp. recently launched “Monk Fruit In The Raw”, a zero-calorie natural sugar substitute, at the retail level in October 2022.

Innovation Gathers Pace

Innovation in monk fruit sweeteners continues, with additional offerings being introduced for specific customer needs. Different sweetness potencies and purities allow for specific applications to be optimized for regulatory compliance, label attractiveness, and use level/taste performance to be delivered for specific applications. Several firms are also working on technical innovations to bring prices down. In 2019, Chinese plant-based sweetener producer Layn Corp. launched the ‘Super V Fruit,’ a proprietary variety of monk fruit designed to naturally produce 20% more mogrosides.

North Carolina-based Elo Life Systems, meanwhile, is retooling the DNA of easier-to-grow melon varieties to produce mogroside V with plans to introduce a new natural sweetener with a cleaner taste profile, more affordable price tag, and a higher sweetness intensity than monk fruit extracts currently on the market. Icon Foods, in turn, is working with a partner on a project to produce mogroside V via glucosylation using enzymatic bioconversion. This process is expected to transform a lower grade mogroside V starter material to a higher-grade material, as with glucosylated steviol glycosides. “We are a year out from rolling this out, but this should stabilize pricing and bolster the supply chain,” says Icon Foods.

There are also advancing innovations in the extraction and separation processes focusing on conservation to minimize water and energy use while improving product yield, quality, and cost. At the field level, producers are experimenting with bumblebee pollination to replace artificial pollination, introducing germ chitting (the process of improving the content of the glycoside V in fruit through seedling optimization), and exploring mechanized automatic picking.

Monk Fruit Destined For The Premium Aisle

Monk fruit growth over the past decade has been phenomenal. Since the 2010 FDA approval of monk fruit as a common sweetener, demand has continued to grow. By June 2019, there were an estimated 4,300 consumer products sweetened with monk fruit on the market and 8,000 by June 2021 with applications across beverage, dairy, tabletop sugar substitutes, baked goods, cereals, and nutritional supplements. The market is expected to expand even further as more players incorporate monk fruit into their low-sugar formulations. “The demand from consumers for sugar reduction solutions that are not artificial suggests a bright future for monk fruit and other non-artificial sweeteners,” said Jim Carr, director of global ingredient technology for sweeteners at Tate & Lyle. “Launches with monk fruit are more likely to feature claims linked to trends such as ‘naturalness’, ‘plant-based’ and ‘free-from’ than launches that contain any other type of intense sweetener.”

In value terms, Data Bridge Market Research forecasts the monk fruit sweetener market to witness 5.40% growth between 2021 and 2028 to reach a market value of US$300 million by 2028. North America and Europe dominate the monk fruit sweetener market because of the increasing demand for naturally derived sweeteners. However, the high price associated with monk fruit sweeteners, limited volumes, and the presence of a large number of artificial sweeteners are expected to limit growth. Lack of awareness regarding the product among consumers is also another challenge and might limit the monk fruit sweetener market in the forecast period of 2021 to 2028, according to Data Bridge Market Research.

Nancy Hughes, president at Apura Ingredients, a leading supplier of sweeteners to the North American market, says monk fruit and stevia are currently positioned in the middle-level product market but “are destined to be different in their market directions.” “The stevia industry is more suitable in the direction of middle-to-low and middlelevel markets, whereas monk fruit is more appropriately positioned in the mid-to-high or high-level product market,” she said, putting forth that monk fruit has a better overall taste and the advantage of being a clean label. Those desiring to use it despite the cost, King advises pairing the sweetener with other bulk sweeteners such as allulose and erythritol. He notes that such a composite profile creates a sweetener that has parity with sucrose in applications making it a plugin for sugar while providing volume to mitigate monk fruit cost, which continues to be relatively expensive compared to stevia.

This article first appeared in Issue 57 of Food Business Africa Magazine. Click Here to read the entire magazine.