Walk into any Chinese medical hall in Singapore and the chances are they carry Luo Han Guo. This earth-toned fruit has long been valued in traditional Chinese medicine for its health benefits. It is reputedly good for treating sore throats, coughs, clearing internal heat and gastrointestinal problems. In recent years, Luo Han Guo has been developed into a natural sweetener, making a strong presence in the western market. The Food and Drug Administration in America has approved its use as a food ingredient, sweetener and flavor modifier. Studies are underway to determine its many other health benefits. With its recent rise in popularity, perhaps, it is time to get reacquainted with this humble fruit.
Luo Han Guo is also known as Luo Han Kuo or Momordica grosvernoir (botanical name: Siraitia grosvernorii). It belongs to the gourd family and its vine bears round, green fruits. Indigenous to the mountains of Guilin in Southern China, they thrive in the mists of the steep mountains. It is believed that cultivations of Luo Han Guo dated back to 1813. Many have attributed the longevity of its local residents to the use of this fruit in their diet, hence its other name, “longevity fruit.” It is also referred to as “monk’s fruit,” a historical trivia citing the monks for introducing the use of the fruit in the 13th century.
The fresh fruit is seldom used due to its short shelf life and its unappealing flavours. It is often used dried. The dried fruit has a nutty aroma with a sweet caramel toffee-like flavor. Its distinctive sweet quality is due to presence of mogrosides, a group of terpene glycosides, which is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Despite its sweetness, it doesn’t raise blood sugar, making it a good candidate for natural sweetener.
According to a recent National Health Survey conducted in Singapore, obesity rate went up by 11 percent. Obesity has unwelcomed ramifications—it brings with it certain health risks such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and potential cancer risks. One of the ways to fight obesity is to reduce sugar intake and since Luo Han Guo is a natural sweetener, this may be welcomed news for those trying to keep their weight down. Luo Han Guo sweetener has virtually no calories and since it remains stable in high temperature, it can be used as a sugar substitute to sweeten beverages and for general baking and cooking purposes.
Apart from its sweetness, this exotic fruit is high in vitamin C, protein and has 18 basic amino acids. Due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, Luo Han Guo extract has been used to blend with other herbal extracts to enhance the immune system and to reduce risks of cancer. These claims, however, are still inconclusive. Other health benefits of Luo Han Guo are being investigated–among them whether mongrosides in Luo Han Guo act as potential tumor inhibitors.