Although its emergence in the U.S. food and beverage market has been somewhat cautious, there is a lot of buzz around the newest zero-calorie, all-natural sweetener from the Chinese monk fruit.
The sweetener is made from the Southeast Asian monk fruit, also called luo han guo, a small green melon with a long history of being cultivated in its native China, much like stevia was familiar in the South American market prior to its debut here in the U.S.
Monk fruit sweetener emerged in the U.S. market two years ago when New Zealand-based BioVittoria’s Fruit-Sweetness ingredient received GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status from the Food and Drug Administration. Since then, the novel sweetener has been drawing attention due to its combination of zero calories, potent sweetness and all-natural health halo as it’s derived from fruit.
Last year, Tate & Lyle became the exclusive marketer and distributor for BioVittoria’s monk fruit sweetener, now known as the Purefruit brand name. According to Adrienne Pohrte, food scientist at Tate & Lyle, besides its all-natural positioning, and zero calories, Purefruit is generating interest from beverage developers due to its clean, sweet taste profile minus stevia’s often bitter aftertaste. “Purefruit was preferred nine to one over stevia in our internal sensory panels,” she says.
And McNeil Nutritionals launched Nectresse, a new no-calorie tabletop sweetener made with BioVittoria’s monk fruit extract. Paul Paslaski, vice president of sales and marketing for BioVittoria USA, says there are about 30 to 40 food and beverage products on the market containing monk fruit extract.
Paslaski says a sweetener derived from fruit is very appealing to consumers: “People trust fruit; fundamentally they see fruit as very safe.”
The monk fruit sweetener market now includes ingredient maker Amax Nutrasource’s Perfecta, a zero-calorie blend of monk fruit extract and erythritol launched earlier this year.
According to Paslaski, monk fruit extract works well in low-acid drinks with a neutral pH such as dairy and smoothie-type products. When used in higher acid beverages, the cost becomes a little more challenging as more of the monk fruit extract has to be used, he says.
Turtle Mountain, based in Eugene, Ore., markets a line of So Delicious dairy-free drinks, that contain a mix of Reb A stevia and monk fruit extract as its sweeteners. According to a media rep from the company, product developers found that a combination of the natural sweeteners offers a slightly different sweetness that works well with the coconut milk flavors, like chocolate.
Other drinks on the market that contain monk fruit extract include Trim Toniq, a botanical-based diet beverage from the makers of Brain Toniq, which also contains a sweetener mix of stevia and cranberry and chokeberry fruit extracts, and Cuties Juice, a line of all-natural kids’ drinks.
Pashen Black, marketing communications manager for Tate & Lyle, says internal research indicates moms, especially, are attracted to Purefruit as a sweetener option due to its natural positioning and no calories.
Tate & Lyle offers three forms of the sweetener—Purefruit Select, Purefruit Plus and Purefruit. Purefruit Plus is a blend of monk fruit extract and stevia extract developed with Tate & Lyle’s proprietary technology for a well-rounded taste profile suitable for zero-calorie and reduced-calorie drinks, Pohrte says.
Monk fruit extract is typically 200 times as sweet as sugar and is heat and acid stable and soluble in water.
Like stevia, monk fruit sweeteners can be combined with other sweeteners and work well with sucrose, fructose, erythritol, stevia, honey or other fruit concentrates, for either reduced-calorie drinks or zero-calorie offerings.
“We’re seeing interest for Purefruit to be used both in zero-calorie drinks and reduced-calorie drinks, depending on the product and target market,” Pohrte says. “In juices, companies are looking to develop a reduced-calorie juice, but with the taste of a 100-percent juice, and Purefruit brings the sweetness back up. With a flavored water, companies are interested in using it as a sole sweetener to maintain zero calories and keep that health halo.”
Some in the industry see its potential to become a more mainstream ingredient, especially given the success of stevia with PepsiCo’s Trop 50 juice brand, which is made with stevia and 50 percent less sugar than regular Tropicana orange juice. It’s become one of its fastest-selling brands and is headed to $300 million a year in sales. Stevia-sweetened, reduced-calorie juices are helping to revolutionize the juice market, as its high calorie content, due to naturally occurring sugar in fruit juice, has scared off weight-conscious consumers. And, consumers also voice concerns about “light” juice varieties as they often contain artificial sweeteners, so products like Trop50 give consumers the best of both worlds—the healthiness of juice without the extra sugar and calories.
Consumer acceptance of stevia as a sweetener has been key to Trop 50’s success, and it also indicates the potential for sweeteners like Purefruit and Perfecta.
“The research here at Tate & Lye indicates there is definitely interest in monk fruit extract becoming a more mainstream sweetener versus a niche sweetener,” Black says.
Paslaski with BioVittoria predicts national distribution of the Nectresse tabletop sweetener will expose more consumers to the monk fruit sweetener, which will, in turn, drive traffic to food and beverages containing the sweetener.
“There is definitely a sweet spot for it, but you do have to get over some economic hurdles,” he says.