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Monk fruit: The next generation natural sweetener

By most measures, stevia has become a gradual smash hit, a nearly perfect storm convergence of features when it comes to sweeteners. It is sweet, very sweet; up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. It’s low in calories; in fact, its calories are negligible, along with its effect on insulin secretion. And it’s natural. The sweet leaves of the stevia plant (a member of the sunflower family) have been used as a sweetener for decades in many countries before stevia extracts entered the US sweetener market.

The sweet and low- or no-cal attributes have been givens probably forever in the non-nutritive sweetener game. Taste was a trade-off most dieters have been willing to make. But truly natural was never an option until stevia. And it has been a huge part of that sweetener’s success.

In stevia’s mould, the next big sweetener contender is a fruit of the herbaceous perennial vine Siraitia grosvenorii, native to southern China and northern Thailand, and called by several names, including luo han guo, Buddha fruit or, more recently, monk fruit.

Known in traditional Chinese medicine as a sweetener for cooling drinks and used to treat obesity and diabetes, monk fruit contains fructose and glucose as natural sugars. But it’s the mogrosides, compounds similar to those that sweeten stevia, that make the monk fruit up to 300 times as sweet as sugar.

BioVittoria was an early advocate of the sweetener. The New Zealand-based company claims to have locked up 90 percent of the world’s supply of monk fruit.

It’s vertically integrated, supplying its own seedlings to Chinese farmers who are contracted to supply the company. The seedlings are the optimized result of natural plant breeding, not genetic modification, emphasizes Paul Paslaski, vice president of sales and marketing in the US office in Libertyville, Ill. BIoVittoria then processes the monk fruit extract into a powder, which is then sent through distributors around the world. It buys no monk fruit on the open market, he says.

Actually, it’s not an extract, Paslaski claims. “Since it comes from a fruit, it basically starts as a juice,” he explains. Only water is used in the extraction/processing. The mogrosides are separated from the fresh-pressed juice of the monk fruit that contains carbohydrate sources, fructose and glucose.

And that could be a key advantage over stevia. A true “natural” claim for some stevia could be questioned, as some suppliers of that plant-based sweetener use solvents to extract the steviol glycosides.

Paslaski also notes that while most of the current interest in monk fruit is due to its sweetening ability, there are several other bioactives in the fruit that could become valuable and marketed ingredients down the road.

BioVittoria’s first milestone was the January 2010 notification from the FDA that its Fruit-Sweetness-branded monk fruit concentrate is GRAS (generally recognized as safe). Then came a partnership with London-based Tate & Lyle, which resulted it buying an equity stake in the company and becoming the exclusive distributor worldwide.

Tate & Lyle launched industrial products under the name Purefruit and just recently supplied BioVittoria’s monk fruit to McNeil Nutritionals, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, for Nectresse, a consumer/tabletop sweetener that is just rolling out nationally.

It’s advertised as a combination of monk fruit extract and other natural sweeteners including erythritol, a sugar alcohol that is fermented from sugars present in many vegetables and fruits.

That Tate & Lyle-McNeil deal parallels the partnership the two companies have for Splenda, McNeil’s consumer brand for the London company’s sucralose….. Read the full article

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