Monk fruit: Can a “Kiwi dragon” save us from sugar?

A Chinese/New Zealand joint-venture claims it can solve the world’s obesity epidemic with its natural sugar alternative. Is this “Kiwi dragon” ready to soar, or will it come crashing back to earth?

It’s no secret that many Kiwis are losing the battle of the bulge. About two-thirds of New Zealanders are overweight or obese, including 29 per cent of children. In fact, the country envied by much of the world for the perceived healthiness of its citizens is, rather, one of the fattest countries on earth.

With Aotearoa losing the battle of the bulge, it comes as no surprise that there’s a fierce market to develop an alternative to the heaps of sugar we consume in the foods we eat every day. To that end, the sugar substitute Sweet-Delicious isn’t that different than what else is already on the market – but what is different is the enormity of the operation behind it.

Developed by Kiwi and Chinese joint venture Guilin GFS Monk Fruit Corporation, Sweet-Delicious is produced from a type of small Chinese melon known as monk fruit (also known as luo han guo).

Company officials are, of course, quick to tout its benefits.

“Today, product formulators have a toolkit that consists of high-intensity sweeteners, sugar alcohols and low-calorie sugars, but all these products come with limitations and challenges in terms of taste, labelling and consumer perception,” says David Thorrold, New Zealand general manager sales and marketing for Monk Fruit Corp.

“However, Sweet-Delicious is a completely natural fruit juice with a very clean taste which meets the consumer demand for natural food products and ingredients that don’t compromise on flavour.”

That all sounds fine and good, but is this just the beginning of what might be the next diet fad? Several big-name investors who are backing the venture, including Stephen Tindall’s K1W1 innovation fund, the ACC, and the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund, are hoping it’s more than that.

It’s probably for the best that Sweet-Delicious pushes itself as a natural sugar substitute, because public scepticism of artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes remains high. While the jury is still out on whether artificial sweeteners can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer, research has been mixed. Health risks/benefits aside, the mistrust means artificial sweeteners do not have the same potential for sales growth that natural products have – meaning it’s a less lucrative industry.

That isn’t to say Sweet-Delicious has become “the next big thing” yet. So far, only a couple of Kiwi companies are using it in their products. Auckland’s Smartfoods (who own the Vogel’s cereal brand) use it, as does Dunedin-based INLINE Nutrition, which uses a powdered form in protein supplements.

And monk fruit isn’t exactly a “new” thing, either. The Monk Fruit Corp was founded in 2004, later teaming up with Hamilton-based BioVittoria. Previously, BioVittoria produced about 90 per cent of the global supply of monk fruit extract in the Chinese city of Guilin, manufacturing its products for companies such as McNeil Nutritionals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. BioVittoria attempted to get listed on the NZX in 2009, but had to abandon the effort after a purported lack of market support.

The Monk Fruit Corp still has big plans, though. The company claims it will harvest a mind-boggling 250 million monk fruits this year alone, making it the world’s largest producer of the fruit. The company already has patent applications for Sweet-Delicious in China, Europe and the US, and has deals in place with food and beverage giants Nestlé, Pepsico, Coca-Cola, General Mills, and Kellogg.

So is this a case of the “Kiwi dragon” conquering the globe, or is it much ado about nothing? It’s definitely high-risk, high reward, as the global sweetener market is worth an estimated US$60bn (NZ$90bn) a year.

“We expect within two years that we will have regulatory approvals and product introductions covering over 5 billion consumers, and that within three years this will extend to around 75 per cent of the world’s population,” claims Thorrold, who used to be BioVittoria’s chief executive.

“With a compelling, uniquely differentiated value proposition, we believe monk fruit juice has a bright future as a global solution for sugar and calorie reduction.”

One thing is certain: if Sweet-Delicious ends up reducing Kiwis’ waistlines, it’ll surely fatten Monk Fruit Corp’s bottom line.