Luo Han Guo – Another Sugar AlternativeApril 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 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.
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.
Tags: Luo Han Guo, Stevia
Posted in Nutrition