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About Lo Han

Of all foods, sugar has been the great American “success story.” In 1850, approximately 55% of the calories in the American diet came from complex carbohydrates. Today, that figure is only about 20%. Authorities estimate that perhaps 15% of the calories in the American diet now come from fructose (mostly derived from corn) and that a total of at least 25% of the calories in the standard American diet come from added sugars. This amounts to more than 150 pounds of added sugars per person per year. Simple sugars have now supplanted complex carbohydrates as the dominant source of carbohydrates in the American diet. The question is whether natural sweeteners can claim a share of sugar’s “success.”

No one doubts that there are incentives for the adoption of natural sweeteners. Our sweet tooth has created an enormous market, but one with an equally great downside. More than 60% of adult Americans are overweight or obese; moreover, year-by-year the epidemic of weight gain seems to claim a growing percentage of younger individuals. Artificial sugar substitutes have capitalized on our love/hate relationship with all things sweet, yet many consumers feel at least vaguely uneasy about habitually ingesting saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame K or sucralose. Despite this unease, natural sweeteners as of yet have not been able to break out of comparatively tiny niche markets.

Reasons for the failure of sales of natural sweeteners to expand fall under several headings. Some are simply regulatory. Stevia (extracted from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni), the best known of the natural would-be sugar substitutes, cannot meet certain FDA restrictions, such as the requirement that to be labeled a sweetener, a natural compound must also be a carbohydrate. Therefore, stevia must be labeled as a “supplement” and not as a sweetener or sugar substitute, limiting its applications. Quite a number of carbohydrate sugar substitutes exist, but, along with varying amounts of calories, most of these provide less sweetness than is found with sucrose, much to the consumer’s chagrin. An example of this is tagatose, which is 90% as sweet as sucrose and has 1.5 calories per gram. Sugar alcohols would appear to be better candidates. Indeed, one well known sugar alcohol, xylitol, is roughly as sweet as sucrose. It also offers the advantages of protecting against tooth decay while supplying 2.4 calories per gram. However, sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect in many individuals when ingested in significant quantities at one time.

Very few of the natural sugar alternatives can boast intense sweetness. Stevia is approximately 200-300 times as sweet as sucrose, but cannot be legally sold touting this property. This represents the conundrum that has frustrated industry experts and one which they have been grappling with.

Enter Lo Han, a promising, naturally intense sweetener that can be sold for this very purpose. More traditionally called Lo Han Kuo, it is a small gourd-like fruit of the plant Momordica grosvenorii (or Siraitia grosvenori). A member of the plant family Cucurbitaceae, this sweetener is grown in remote, mountainous areas of Southern China. Like stevia, its active components, called mogrosidse, are approximately 200-300 times as sweet as sucrose. Unlike stevia, because Lo Han is a fruit extract, it can be sold and labeled specifically as a sweetener.

Part of the appeal of this sweetener is its history of traditional use. In China, this fruit extract and its water extract have been used for centuries in both foods and medicinal preparations. Although not formally of GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) standing in the US, its history of food use by a large population before the GRAS law became active (1958) gives it what is sometimes referred to as self-affirming or informal GRAS status, and no restrictions apply. As an herbal remedy, Lo Han extracts are employed for lung congestion, colds, and sore throat. According to the authoritative Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica, no side effects have ever been documented. Modern scientific experiments show that Lo Han fruit water extract helps relieve gastritis, constipation, respiratory inflammations, and cough. Additionally, Lo Han terpene glycosides inhibit the Epstein-Bar virus and display anti-cariogenic effects.

Lo Han’s potential as a sugar substitute has begun to attract commercial attention in the United States. Understandably, the US currently trails Asia, where Lo Han extracts are already widely available in the commercial sector. On the Asian continent, Lo Han is used as a natural, low carbohydrate sweetener for foods, beverages, and products for diabetics.

The mogrosides (triterpene glycosides) contained in Lo Han are responsible for the characteristically intense, sweet taste of this fruit. Currently, over ten mogrosides have been isolated from Lo Han fruit. These sweet components are water-soluble and can be concentrated via water extraction. The extract is then dried, preferably via vacuum drying. No organic solvent is used during the entire process. Although the mogrosides in Lo Han taste sweet, they are not recognized by the body as sugars and are non-caloric. Lo Han extract itself has no caloric value. It is because Lo Han has little or no effect on blood sugar or insulin levels that it is suitable for use by diabetics.

Properly prepared, the extract from fresh Lo Han fruit offers a pleasant, clean taste, whereas the extract made from the dried fruit does not taste as pleasant, even exhibiting a noticeably bitter aftertaste. This is because of an enzyme in the fruit that during the drying process transforms the mogrosides into bitter substances having a caramel-like taste. Hence, quality and preparation are important with Lo Han extracts.

A good Lo Han extract offers certain advantages over other natural sweeteners. For example, stevia, unless highly purified, has quite noticeable flavor undertones that make it unsuitable for use in many products. Similarly, glycyrrhizin (from licorice) has significant flavor limitations. Lo Han has a clean taste that combines well with many other sweeteners, such as xylitol and other sugar alcohols.

Another advantage of Lo Han is its versatility. It is very stable in the face of heating and freezing, and therefore can be used readily in cooked and baked goods as well as in frozen desserts.

Lo Han is a good alternative to consider when looking for natural sweeteners that are calorie-free, not just sugar-free. Controversy has emerged repeatedly in the natural products industry with regard to bars and meal replacements that have been promoted as being sugar-free and even carbohydrate-free, yet supplied substantial numbers of calories in the form of various sugar alcohols, glycerin, or similar sources. Lo Han offers a way to avoid this trap, for it not only can be used specifically as a sweetening agent, it also can be promoted as being calorie-free. For general wellbeing, Lo Han fits into the regiment of supporting healthy metabolic responses in the body.

Peilin Guo, M.S., R.D., is the Executive Vice President for Jarrow Formulas, headquartered in Los Angeles, CA. She is the member of American Dietetic Association, Institute of Food Technologists and American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. She has developed a variety of nutritional and dietary supplements with extensive experience in nutritional approach in health maintenance.

The information provided on Lil’ Peeps Nutrition’s website is for information purposes only.   The contents of this website are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.