We all know that sugar is bad for you, but are you doing yourself any favors when you reach for an alternative sweetener? Some people swear by stevia but that has its own downfalls. Then there's Monk Fruit, which has recently gained traction as an "all-natural" alternative – but does this fruit's nutritional profile live up to the hype? Here's everything you need to know about the sweetener wars: Cane sugar versus Stevia versus Monk Fruit, before you sweeten that ice tea again.

First, how much sugar (or sweetener) should you have in a day? As little as possible is the real guideline. But the American Heart Association states that men should be limiting themselves to no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) each day, while women should stop at 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day. Keep in mind that includes all sources. And many of the leading sources of added sugar include beverages (canned soda, fruit drinks, and sweetened coffee drinks), as well as sweet treats like cookies, candy, snacks, and all other sweets.

With many American adults looking to have less sugar in their diet, there are several alternatives to calorie-dense white sugar. Artificial sweeteners are FDA approved, but the conflicting research on our health may make people avoid them. Sugar alcohols are another option but could cause digestive issues if too much is consumed. There are also plant-based options, with stevia and monk fruit being two of the most common.

Stevia vs. Monk fruit: Which is Better for You? An RD's Take

If you’re wondering what the differences are between stevia and monk fruit, there are distinct reasons you might want to choose one over the other.

Monk Fruit Has Powerful Antioxidants

This round fruit, also known as lo han guo or Swingle fruit, is native to southern China and has been used as medicine to treat colds, flu, and digestive conditions for many centuries. Now, it is also utilized as a sweetener for foods and beverages. In order to create monk fruit sweeteners, the seeds and skin of the fruit are removed and the juice is collected.

Unlike cane sugar, monk fruit sweetener contains zero calories per serving and is 150 to 200 times sweeter. Many claim that there is a slight aftertaste, but it’s not as bitter as some other sweeteners. Monk fruit can also be an ideal substitute for sugar in baked goods due to its ability to remain stable at high temperatures. The only difference you may notice is the structure and texture of the foods you’re baking so try it out first before serving a big important cake or dinner party creation.

Monk fruit contains compounds called mogrosides, which give it its sweet taste but are also powerful antioxidants that are shown to reduce inflammation and even inhibit cancer growth in lab animals, in preliminary studies. This molecule isn’t absorbed in our gastrointestinal tract, which is why it winds up not contributing any calories to your dish. A 2020 study found that mogrosides' antioxidant properties reduce inflammatory markers and reduce oxidative stress, while another study in 2017 showed it has an ability to halt the proliferation of tumor cells, specifically pancreatic cancer growth, although researchers warn this needs more study. Yet another study published in Nutrients in 2016 found that mogrosides may prevent colon and laryngeal (voice box) cancer by inhibiting cancer-specific cells and having an anticancer effect on tumors in mice. Further human research needs to be conducted.

Pros and Cons of monk fruit

Some pros of monk fruit include:

  • Zero calories, carbs, and sugar
  • No evidence of harmful side effects
  • Can be purchased as a granule, powder, and liquid
  • May potentially benefit health
  • Little to no bitter aftertaste

Monk fruit comes with some cons as well, however. First, some manufacturers may combine monk fruit extract with sugar or other sweeteners which wind up offsetting its potential health benefits. It can also be a bit more costly than other sweeteners since it is difficult to grow and expensive to export.

Stevia Has Zero Calories but Has an Aftertaste

Instead of fruit, stevia comes from the Stevia rebaudiana plant, which is found in certain parts of South America. Stevia leaves contain eight different glycosides (which are basically molecules of sugar) that are isolated and purified to create the sweetener. Out of all eight, there are two that are more plentiful and commonly used and researched. They include stevioside and rebaudioside A (reb A).

Similar to monk fruit, stevia doesn’t contain any calories and is about 200 to 400 times sweeter than white sugar. Some opinions state that the aftertaste of stevia is unpleasant and bitter or metallic. Because of this, some manufacturers may add other sweeteners to stevia to offset the flavor, including agave, turbinado sugar, or sugar alcohols.

Stevia has been linked with various health benefits.

A 2020 review published in the International Journal of Clinical Research & Trials found beneficial data that shows stevia's ability to lower hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), hypertension (high blood pressure), and inflammation. A 2019 study in Nutrients also states that stevia could help individuals who are diabetic or looking to lose weight since replacing cane sugar with stevia lowers calories, blood sugar and keeps insulin from spiking. The study found that participants had lower appetite sensation, no further increased food intake, and low postprandial (after meal) blood sugar levels after receiving a preload of stevia (one gram).

Although steviol glycosides are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA, the whole stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts are not. This may turn people away from using stevia since it is more refined and processed than other natural sweeteners.

Those who are allergic to plants that come from the Asteraceae family should avoid stevia altogether. This includes daisies, ragweed, chrysanthemums, and sunflowers.

Pros and Cons of Stevia

Stevia has comparable pros to monk fruit, but a few more cons. The pros include:

  • Zero calories, carbs, and sugar
  • Can be purchased in many forms
  • Has potential health benefits

When it comes to the disadvantages of stevia, they include:

  • Potential gastrointestinal side effects, such as gas and bloating (if combined with sugar alcohols)
  • Could cause allergic reactions in some individuals
  • Higher cost
  • More processed
  • Mixed with other sweeteners
  • Unpleasant aftertaste

Bottom Line: Both stevia and monk fruit are natural alternatives to cane sugar or artificial sweeteners. Since neither is better or worse than the other, the only thing you have to consider when choosing between the two is which flavor you prefer.