Is Coconut Sugar the Perfect Alternative Sweetener?

It may taste great, but coconut sugar may not live up to all of its health claims.

Coconut palm flowers; inset: coconut sugar crystals. (Photos: Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikipedia; inset: David Bishop Inc./Getty Images)

Jul 13, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

There is sugar, and then there is sugar. That found in fruits and vegetables, for instance, is part and parcel of a nutritious, high-fiber whole food. But as we all know by now, it’s the added sugars in processed foods, prepared foods, and beverages, such as sodas and sports or energy drinks, that can wreak havoc on our health.

About one in 10 people gets 25 percent or more of his or her calories from added sugars, and an important 15-year study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that “participants who took in 25% or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10% added sugar. Overall, the odds of dying from heart disease rose in tandem with the percentage of sugar in the diet—and that was true regardless of a person’s age, sex, physical activity level, and body-mass index (a measure of weight).”

Lots of folks turn to alternative sweeteners such as stevia or agave nectar, which are viewed as less processed than table sugar. One of the latest in this ever-expanding category is coconut sugar, which is derived not from coconuts but from the flower-bud sap—nectar—of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). Although the terms coconut sugar, palm sugar, and coconut palm sugar are often used interchangeably (and confusingly), palm sugar comes from the sap collected from different palm species.

Coconut palm sap, which is about 80 percent water, is boiled to evaporate the liquid content, and the solids that remain are granulated to form coconut sugar. It looks and tastes much like brown sugar, and I’ve used it in a balsamic glaze for strawberries (now’s the time to pounce) to great effect.

As far as coconut sugar’s chemical structure goes, it is around 70 percent sucrose, whereas table sugar is all sucrose. The remainder consists of individual molecules of glucose and fructose (the two sugars that make up sucrose). According to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute, in the Philippines, coconut sugar also contains minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium. But even though the mineral content of coconut sugar is marketed to the max, you’d have to consume far more than a teaspoon or two in your coffee or breakfast bowl to reap the same nutritional benefits you would get from a banana, say, or a serving of dark greens.

Another health claim made by manufacturers is about coconut sugar’s glycemic index—that is, the measure of how rapidly a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood sugar levels. Foods are ranked in comparison to a reference food (either glucose or white bread) and given a numerical value. A low GI comes in under 55; a moderate GI ranges from 56 to 69; and a high GI is any number over 70. (Aren’t you glad I look this stuff up so you don’t have to?) As the American Diabetes Association points out, in the United States, we don’t do official GI testing, so GI numbers for the exact same food can differ depending on the source.

Much has been made of coconut sugar’s low GI of 35, but as far as I can tell, that number is based primarily on a study of “10 Apparently Healthy Adults” in the Philippines, a country with a burgeoning coconut sugar industry. According to the University of Sydney, which publishes a very large, if not exhaustive, online database of the glycemic index and glycemic load values of various foods, coconut sugar has a GI of 54, which is at the top end of the low category. (White and brown sugars have a GI of around 64, putting them into the moderate category.)

Keep in mind that judging foods strictly by the glycemic index is not as straightforward as you may think.

“GI can also vary from person to person,” the American Diabetes Association explains. “It will change depending on how a food is cooked, and what the food is eaten with. In the case of coconut palm sugar, it is likely to be mixed or prepared with other ingredients that contain carbohydrates.”

The association goes on to say that it’s fine for people with diabetes to use coconut sugar as a sweetener, but they shouldn’t treat it any differently from regular sugar, as it provides the same amount of calories (15) and carbohydrates (4 grams) per teaspoon. The association offers a savvy shopping tip: “Also, note that some coconut palm sugar on the market may be mixed with cane sugar and other ingredients. It is important to check nutrition labels and read the ingredient list on these products.”

So caveat emptor. Coconut sugar isn’t a magic bullet. It’s not a mineral supplement. It’s not a superfood. It’s not even a whole food. But it is a perfectly delicious sweetener with a deeper flavor than plain old table sugar, so enjoy it in small amounts. Or not.