Chinese monk fruit latest all-natural sweetener to make waves

Foods and beverages sweetened with Chinese monk fruit will be hitting US grocery store shelves within the year and could become another all-natural, zero-calorie weapon against obesity and diabetes.

About 300 times sweeter than sugar, the monk fruit - which looks like a small, green melon - is the latest all-natural sweetener to edge its way into the food and beverage market.

The biggest player making waves currently is stevia, a plant that's been used in Paraguay and Brazil for hundreds of years for its sweetening and medicinal properties.

Both Coco-Cola and PepsiCo partnered with researchers to develop their own brands of stevia-based sweeteners. PepsiCo's line of SoBe waters, available in the US and Canada, uses the stevia-based sweetener PureVia. Coca-Cola's Odwalla juice line includes two flavors sweetened with the proprietary Truvia: Odwalla Mojito Mambo and Odwalla Pomegranate Strawberry.

The monk fruit, meanwhile - also known as luo han guo - is likewise touted as an all-natural sweetener and grows on steep forested mountains in southwest China, on small-scale local farms. It's been used for years as a sweetener in Asia and is touted as a zero-calorie ingredent ideal for diabetic patients.

In an interview with trade magazine FoodNavigator.com last week, New Zealand-based BioVittoria - the largest producer and processor of monk fruit in the world - said it's confident that its sweetener, Fruit-Sweetness, will be available in beverages commercially this year. The product is 150 times sweeter than sugar.

FlatBelly Protein Shake, a whey protein drink of Maverick Brands in California, will be the first to launch a beverage using Fruit-Sweetness.

Talking Rain Beverage Company in Washington is also developing a flavored water formulated with the natual sweetener.

After getting the green light from the US Food and Drug Administration last year affirming its product's status as Generally Recognized As Safe, BioVittoria has been aggressively going after the US market.

While dairy, juice drinks and water manufacturers are BioVittoria's biggest market right now, soft drink, cereal, biscuits and confectionery companies have also expressed interest, the company's VP of sales and marketing told FoodNavigator.

According to market researcher Mintel, new US launches of monk fruit-sweetened products for this year include two cereals from Kashi, a whey protein meal replacement drink from Biochem, Fruity Dophilus probiotic drink mix sachets and a table top sweetener from Swanson Health Products.

BioVittoria is currently working towards a regulatory submission for the European Union.

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