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Luo Han Guo – Another Sugar Alternative

April 14, 2009 Written by JP       [Font too small?]

I have an online friend who lives in Japan. He recently asked me about a product that he has been seeing in stores in his part of world. The product label claims that it’s a natural, low calorie alternative to sugar. My first thought was that he must be referring to stevia. I know that stevia is commercially available in Japan and has been used there for several decades now. But as it turns out, the product that caught his eye was something quite different. It’s an exotic fruit extract known as luo han guo.

The Divine Monk Fruit

Luo Han Guo FruitLuo han guo is derived from a fruit that grows in a few distinct regions in China. In particular, it thrives in the warm, humid and shady environment of the Guilin mountains. Historical texts indicate that this incredibly sweet fruit was consumed by monks who lived in the Guangxi province going back to the 13th century. But it wasn’t widely cultivated until the 1800s because of the particular climate needed to make it commercially viable.

The juice of luo han guo has been used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including chest congestion, constipation, coughs, sore throats and sunstroke. It has even been used as a longevity tonic, likely due to the fact that residents of the Lingui and Yongfu counties, where luo han guo is cultivated, often live in excess of 100 years.

As a commercial product, luo han guo extract has only been available since the mid 1990′s. Around that time, a process was developed for isolating the sweet components of the fruit (mogrosides) from other volatile compounds naturally present in the pulp. The resulting extract was rendered viable as a neutral tasting sweetener. In 2007 the US FDA granted luo han guo extract GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) status and permitted its use in foods and supplements in the USA.

The real question in my mind is whether there’s a place for another natural sugar alternative. I recently reviewed my favorite sweetener, stevia, and gave it the highest possible marks with regard to both safety and taste. Could it be that there’s something even better available for those of us trying to avoid added sugar? Let’s find out.

  • A study from April of 2008 found that a luo han guo extract had a powerful impact on the health of diabetic rats. When given for 4 weeks, the extract decreased blood sugar, total cholesterol, triglycerides and improved liver health in the rats. In addition, there was an increase in HDL (the “good”) cholesterol levels and protective antioxidants found in the rats livers. These results indicate that luo han guo may have a role to play in the management of diabetes and diabetic-related cardiovascular damage.
  • The British Journal of Nutrition reported on another trial conducted on diabetic rats in March of 2007. This experiment lasted considerably longer (13 weeks). An improvement in insulin response and a reduction in blood sugar were found in the treated rats. There was also evidence of lower amounts of lipid peroxidation (an indication of cell damage) and urinary albumin levels in the rats receiving luo han guo. These changes suggest a protective effect on the kidneys which are sensitive to damage caused by diabetes.
  • Another fascinating study offers preliminary evidence that mogrosides (the sweet chemicals in luo han guo) may help to protect the pancreas in diabetic mice. The pancreas is responsible for the production of insulin. In diabetics, certain pancreatic cells are damaged and, therefore, do not produce insulin as they should. It appears that the luo han guo extracts may counter the inflammatory activity that can damage insulin producing cells (islets) in the pancreas.

The first set of studies that I presented focused on the effects of mogrosides/luo han guo on blood sugar. Most of the ill effects of sugar have to do with the elevation in blood glucose and insulin that occurs when sugary foods are consumed. But, I’d like to explore a few other areas of scientific research that are currently underway.

  • Allergies - In 2005, a scientific report illustrated an antihistamine effect in mice given luo han guo extract. The researchers theorized that the extract countered an allergic response by calming mast cells that release chemicals such as histamine which are associated with allergies and asthma.
  • Cancer - A Japanese laboratory study from 2003 found that certain mogrosides from luo han guo showed “remarkable inhibitory effects” on a mouse model of skin cancer. Something else worth considering is that some research implicates sugar consumption with an elevated risk of cancer. So perhaps we can help protect ourselves from cancer simply by replacing sugar with other more healthful substitutes.
  • Heart Disease - A 2002 trial found that luo han guo may help prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing. Oxidized LDL cholesterol plays a role in the formation of plaque in arteries and increases the likelihood of heart disease and strokes.
Guilin Mountain

In looking over the above research, you may have noticed one thing that all these studies have in common. None of them were human studies. This is the big question mark in the case of luo han guo. The evidence that we do have is extremely promising, but will the results found in these lab experiments translate into the human population? We simply don’t know at this time.

I have no reason to believe that this fruit extract, which has been used safely for hundreds of years and subjected to preliminary safety testing, is dangerous. I would, however, like to know it with more certainty. At the present time, I feel more confident recommending stevia, because there is simply much more scientific data to support its safe use.

I must admit that I’ve never tried luo han guo. But this exploratory exercise has stimulated my interest. I plan to take a chance, try luo han guo and compare it to stevia. The two areas of interest will be the issue of taste and whether there are any discernible effects on my blood sugar readings. In order to test the latter, I will invest in a blood sugar monitor. I’ll post my personal findings in the near future.

Here’s where I’d love to have your help. If any of my blog readers are willing to join me in this experiment, I will gladly report your results as well. Please contact me via this website and I’ll provide a very simple experiment design that will help document any significant difference between the use of stevia and luo han guo as a sweetener.

Be well!

JP

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31 Comments to “Luo Han Guo – Another Sugar Alternative”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Interesting, never heard of the sugar usage. In TCM, luo han guo is used for child cough, tonsillitis and constipation.

  2. JP Says:

    Kevin,

    It’s use as an isolated sweetener is a rather recent development. That usage became available once Proctor and Gamble created an extraction process (in 1995) that produced a luo han guo extract that was suitable for use as a sugar alternative.

    Be well!

    JP

  3. Jo Says:

    Hey JP,
    How will the experiment be conducted?
    Let me know and I’m in.

  4. JP Says:

    Good day, Jo. I’d love to have you on board for the experiment.

    Here’s what I propose:

    1. I’d like to do some “taste testing” first to see what people prefer – luo han guo or stevia.

    I would of course love your personal opinion. In addition to that, I’d like to conduct some blind taste tests.

    This could easily be accomplished by asking family members or friends to taste both a stevia sweetened and luo han guo sweetened drink (like coffee or tea) and see which one they prefer. The more feedback we get, the better.

    2. If you have the ability to test your blood sugar response to these two sweeteners, that would be very interesting as well.

    I plan to test my own blood sugar for a one week period or so. The plan will be to test the effect of luo han guo on my blood sugar for several days and then do the same with stevia.

    Example: On Monday afternoon I might have a coffee sweetened with stevia. I’ll test my blood sugar before I drink and perhaps 30 minutes afterward.

    On Tuesday afternoon I will have another coffee but use luo han guo as a sweetener. I will again test my blood sugar prior to drinking and 30 minutes after.

    The important things will be to measure the amount of sweetener used – for both products and to be try to take measurements in a comparable manner (under similar circumstances).

    In order to make the testing more convenient, you can take measurements over the course of 2-3 weeks or more. As long as the conditions of the test are comparable … it won’t matter how long it takes to collect the results.

    Personally, I also plan to measure any effect on my blood pressure and pulse rate. I chose these measurements because I’ll have a way to test them – I already own a blood pressure/pulse device.

    My next step will be to invest in a blood sugar monitor and a bottle of luo han guo. :)

    Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns about the testing I proposed. I’m 100% open and willing to modify the testing to make it more interesting and better.

    Be well!

    JP

  5. GIULIANA FANTON Says:

    JP,

    I LOVE YOUR NEW BANNER!

    I WISH TO PARTICIPATE IN THIS EXCITING ON LINE TRIAL.

    PLEASE PROVIDE PRECISE INSTRUCTIONS TO FOLLOW AND WHERE TO PROCURE THE PRODUCT.

    REGARDS,

    GIULIANA

  6. JP Says:

    Giuliana,

    Thank you for your kind comment about our new banner! :)

    It would be fantastic to have you participate in our sweetener trial.

    I personally plan on using a product called “Sweet Fiber” by Purpose Foods. The reason why is because it comes in a box that contains 50 individual packets. This will make it very easy to measure a single serving.

    I already have a similar product at home that contains stevia – in a packet form. That product is named “Non-Bitter Stevia Extract” by Now Foods.

    Both of these products contain inulin, a form of soluble fiber, in their base. Therefore I believe that they’ll be very similar and well suited for the sake of comparison.

    Be well!

    JP

  7. JP Says:

    Here are the Official Healthy Fellow Luo Han Guo Experiment Guidelines:

    1. Conduct a “blind” taste test on at least 3 people.

    Example: Make two identical drinks (like coffee, lemonade or tea). One should be sweetened with a serving of stevia. The other drink needs to be sweetened with luo han guo.

    Give each drink to a family member or friend to try. Get their impressions. Which do they like better? Ask them to rank their satisfaction for each drink/sweetener, on a scale of 1-10 (1 being complete dissatisfaction and 10 being complete satisfaction).

    2. *If* you have a blood glucose monitor: Collect blood sugar readings prior to drinking and 30 minutes after drinking a stevia sweetened drink for 3 days (they need not be consecutive days). Then repeat this exact procedure using luo han guo as a sweetener for another 3 days.

    Try to collect your blood sugar readings under similar circumstances. For instance, if the afternoon is a good time for you … collect all your readings in the afternoon. Try to keep your eating schedule the same too. As an example, don’t eat a snack prior to having a sweetened drink on one day and then have no snack with your drink the next day.

    3. *If* you have any other medical devices at home, such as a blood pressure or pulse monitor … please use them in a similar manner.

    Personally, I will use my blood pressure and pulse monitor in addition to the blood glucose monitor.

    Any questions? Please feel free to ask them.

    I hope to collect all the results within the next 2-3 weeks. But I will of course accept any and all late entries. The more information we collect, the better.

    Science can be fun. I hope some of you will join me in this homemade science experiment!

    Be well!

    JP

  8. JP Says:

    Here are the luo han guo and stevia products I’ve chosen for my own trial. I picked them because they’re very similar in composition (apart from one containing stevia and the other containing luo han guo).

    http://www.sweetfiber.net/index.php

    http://nowfoods.com/Products/ProductsbyCategory/Category/M103566.htm?cat=Stevia

    Please note that I don’t have any financial or personal interest in these products. I don’t necessarily endorse them either. I’m simply using them because they’re suitable for this experiment and they’re easily attainable in the area where I live.

    You can use any comparable products that you see fit. Just try to choose two sweeteners that are as similar as possible to each other.

    Be well!

    JP

  9. I would love to see the stevia vs Luo Han test results Says:

    How can I get the information on the test between Luo Han and stevia?

  10. JP Says:

    My test results will be published in the form of a new blog in a few weeks. I wanted to post it sooner but I had an unexpected delay.

    So far, it appears that low dosages of both luo han guo and stevia do not raise my blood sugar. More testing should help to verify or refute that preliminary finding. I’ll also experiment with higher dosages in the coming days. Larger amounts may be necessary to reach an acceptable level of sweetness.

    Please stay tuned!

    Be well!

    JP

  11. Stephen LeFebvre Says:

    JP, if you are serious about your experiment we would be happy to supply the luo han, BioVittoria Ltd.is the largest supplier of Luo Han in the world, we produce a very high grade commercial Luo Han and have been given by the Chinese government the designation of “Dragon Head” of the luo han industry,(leader.) Our product known as “PureLo” in the ingredient market. Let me know…

  12. John Says:

    JP, do you have any idea on how the price of luo han compares to stevia? To sugar? From a food manufacturing perspective, this is one big consideration. I think it’s one of the more practical issues when it comes to adoption into mainstream food products of any alternative sweeteners (despite how much healthier these other sweeteners are). For example, outside of colour, coconut sugar could be used in most places that refined sugar is used today – but at a price! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the economics of alternative sweeteners.

  13. JP Says:

    John,

    I’m by no means an expert on this topic. Here’s my general sense of the situation:

    Cost isn’t the primary issue. Consumer demand and taste approval are the two predominant factors, IMO. For instance, I can buy a large bag of “bakers stevia” such as Stevia in Raw for about the same amount as a comparably-sized Splenda package. On the other hand, I couldn’t get my wife to accept the taste of stevia – regardless of the price. Unfortunately, she’s not the only one that feels this way. The same goes with luo han guo.

    The regulatory status of stevia is what it is today because there was sufficient demand for it. But even so, the market is somewhat limited because of tepid consumer acceptance of the current products on the market.

    In other words … if manufacturers can somehow produce luo han guo and stevia-based products that taste as well as artificial sweeteners or better … they’ll be omnipresent, IMO. The elevated demand (and projected demand) will further drive prices down.

    Just my two cents worth. :)

    PS – re: price – We have to keep in mind that both of these natural, sugar-free sweeteners are much, much sweeter than conventional sugar. Only very small quantities are needed to replace relatively large amounts of traditional, caloric sweeteners such as corn syrup, honey and refined sugar.

    Be well!

    JP

  14. John Says:

    JP thanks for the thoughts. Taste approval is a fundamental issue, I’ll definitely agree with you there. That’s probably why I was thinking coconut sugar (or perhaps even yacon) instead of stevia where the replacement volume is pretty much one to one which makes the economics rather poor as they are just plain more expensive then sugar.

    The taste issue reminds me of soy milk. In the early days, a lot of people just couldn’t get over the “beany” taste, regardless of how much “healthier” it was. I think it was also perhaps a mistake to market it as a dairy replacement. In any event, manufacturers have improved the taste and soy milk has pretty much gone mainstream. Maybe we’ll see the same thing play out for some of these natural sweeteners.

  15. renartmalin Says:

    In France, stevia is arriving since some months, and I really dislike the taste. I do like to put some sugar in my coffe, but I’d rather use nothing than putting the stevia we have in my coffe !!
    My problem is to know if there is a fraud (not impossible, who knows before complaining ???)
    Or if stevia has got a kind of particular taste my palate really dislike.

    Thank you all for all informations about genuine stevia taste !!!!

    Claire who is going to by pots of living stevia, just to have some genuine, make dry it, grind it ,and finally test it in a trustable way !!!

  16. JP Says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

    In the United States, there are many brands of stevia. The taste profile of each varies considerably. It also takes some practice to find the optimal amount of stevia needed to sweeten without imparting a significant aftertaste. If you use too much, an aftertaste is almost certain.

    Also, taste perception differs from person to person. For instance, I have no problem using stevia in almost any recipe. I tend to enjoy it. On the other hand, my wife can only tolerate it in certain products and recipes. I’ve been told similar anecdotes from many people.

    Please note that whole-leaf stevia will almost certainly have a stronger taste than most products you’re likely to have tried. Most commercially available stevia sweeteners are extracts which aim to reduce any “off taste” that is naturally present in the whole leaf. Nonetheless, it will be a fun experiment to try. I’d love to hear about your experience with the homegrown stevia. Please report back. :)

    Be well!

    JP

  17. renartmalin Says:

    Thank you very much for your comments, can you tell us about what kind of things your wife is prefering, the recipes she’s practicing ?? Could be a good track for me and the others, to approach stevia use !!
    I’m not joking at all, I found yesterday a french supplier proposing organic pots of young stevia. I will send you pictures of the babies when on balcony, and tests.
    Maybe with other spices too, maybe sugar, (in fact, I’m using fructose)
    If I have a problem with using too much stevia. I could try to mix stevia and spicy sugar. I have a wonderfull collection of very different vanillas, cinnamoms, peppers…
    Hey hey, the naturalperfumista is waking up there^^
    Many thanks for your quick and kind answer, I love twitter:-)

  18. JP Says:

    You’re most welcome. I love Twitter as well. :)

    My wife enjoys a few of my stevia-sweetened recipes:

    http://www.healthyfellow.com/476/almond-pancake-recipe/

    http://www.healthyfellow.com/598/avocado-frozen-yogurt-recipe/

    She also regularly buys a beverage called Steaz Zero (the orange flavor). It’s sweetened with a combination of stevia and erythritol (a natural sugar alcohol).

    http://www.healthyfellow.com/465/erythritol-and-xylitol-news/

    I hope this information is helpful. Best of luck with your upcoming stevia adventure!

    Be well!

    JP

  19. Sai Says:

    Good Day JP!

    I am checking this after a while. Did you get a chance to post the results?

    Best Regards

    Sai

  20. JP Says:

    Good day, Sai!

    I posted this follow up blog that contains some preliminary results:

    http://www.healthyfellow.com/255/the-luo-han-guo-stevia-experiment/

    Be well!

    JP

  21. Zyxomma Says:

    One comment, since this is an experiment where you’ll be testing blood sugar (I got here “by accident” because I’m taking some luohanguo tea along with sage and foenugreek for congestion tonight):

    Inulin, which you mention is in both sweeteners, DOES control blood sugar. I read about health extensively, and both Jerusalem artichoke (from which inulin is usually derived) and inulin itself work to lower blood sugar. Of course, in a sweetener packet, the amount may be insignificant, but on the other hand, it may work in concert with the luohanguo to affect your blood sugar reading.

    (I read There Is a Cure for Diabetes by Dr. Gabriel Cousens and David Rainoshek, so I’m pretty familiar with blood sugar herbs). Anyhow, sounds like an interesting experiment. Health and peace.

  22. Tammy Weber Says:

    The only reservation that I have with the Luo Han Guo is that that Proctor and Gamble uses chemical solvents to process the fruit to remove the volitile and off flavor components.

  23. JP Says:

    Tammy,

    I’m not certain if all Luo Han Guo products are extracted in the same manner. It appears that some products use water as a primary solvent.

    http://www.jarrow.com/product/351/Lo_Han_Sweet

    Be well!

    JP

  24. cindy booth Says:

    im so allergic to this fruit. and to the lychee fruit. I took a new calcium powder and a multivitamin powder. two new products with a small amount of Logan fruit for sweetener. my face started turning bright red , then my ears, neck, chest and arms. the skin was raised like a bad sunburn. My throat stared itching and my tongue stared to swell . I took Benadryl and it stared to go away slowly after 30 min. a few years ago i had a lychee fruit pop cycle and had these results but first time no tongue swelling or tongue swelling.

  25. Ken Page Says:

    I am retired and a diabetic using 650 gm Metformin per day.

    Where can I buy Luo Han Guo in New Zealand

  26. JP Says:

    Hi Ken,

    BioViottoria, the largest manufacturer of Luo Han Guo, is based out of New Zealand. I’m certain they can refer you to a local resource where you can procure some.

    http://www.biovittoria.com/

    Be well!

    JP

  27. JP Says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Cindy. It’s possible to be allergic to virtually any natural or synthetic substance. Therefore, when trying something new or exotic, attention should be paid.

    I’m happy that you’ve identified your allergies and will now be able to avoid the instigating foods/ingredients.

    Be well!

    JP

  28. patricia Says:

    came across this researching this sweetener–haven’t read all the comments, but wondering what you know about the process mentioned for extracting the sweetener from the fruit–have read of a ‘solvent’ involved–know anything on this front?

  29. patricia Says:

    scrolled up just a bit and saw some comments related to my question–anything new? last post a little over a year ago….

  30. JP Says:

    Hi Patricia,

    I attended a presentation about monk fruit at this year’s Natural Products Expo West. My understanding is that water is the solvent of choice these days:

    http://www.monkfruit.org/all-natural-process

    BTW, here’s another column I wrote about monk fruit. I thought you might find it interesting.

    http://www.healthyfellow.com/255/the-luo-han-guo-stevia-experiment/

    Be well!

    JP

  31. Lin Vandra Says:

    I have recently started using it as a substitute for sugar in my tea. I’ve read as much as I can and it seems to be safe opposed to something like Splenda which I would never consume. I am very interested in your findings and would appreciate updates on your research. It happens to be quite expensive, but very little has to be used in order to sweeten (.21 oz is $10.00)

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