The Scoop on Coconut Sugar: Is It A Healthier Sweetener?

Coconut sugar is being advertised as a healthy sugar alternative. It is said to have some nutritional value and a lower glycemic index number than table sugar. Is this too good to be true?

To make coconut sugar, buds of the coconut flower are cut to obtain the palm tree’s sap. The sap is boiled down into sugar crystals.

Since it is a natural plant product there is no chemical aftertaste, though coconut sugar looks and tastes more like brown sugar than white. Because it is measured in recipes the same way as regular sugar, it makes an easy substitute sweetener for baking.

Sometimes called Coconut Palm Sugar, coconut sugar should not be confused with Palm Sugar which is extracted from a different kind of palm tree.

Nutrition Value of Coconut Sugar

Although coconut sugar provides about the same number of calories as regular sugar, its calories are not “empty.” According to the Philippine Dept. of Agriculture, coconut sugar has minerals such as calcium, iron, potassium, and zinc, plus some antioxidants, polyphenols, and fatty acids.

Having nutritional value gives coconut sugar a leg-up over table sugar; however, eating real whole foods to get these nutrients is a better option. For instance, coconut sugar will give you 1,030 mg of potassium, more than one fifth the adult daily recommended amount, but you have to consume a half cup of the expensive, high calorie sugar to get it.

Coconut sugar also contains the plant fiber inulin. The presence of inulin might slow the absorption of glucose into the body. This may be the reason coconut sugar was fairly low on the glycemic index in a research study.

Glycemic Index and Coconut Sugar

Thy glycemic index (GI) measures how fast a food raises blood sugar levels. Pure glucose has a GI of 100. So, a food with a GI of 33 raises blood sugar only a third as much as glucose.

A small study (10 participants) by the Philippine Department of Agriculture measured the GI of coconut sugar at 35. Table sugar has a GI of about 60.

Taken at face value this study suggests coconut sugar is a healthier sweetener than regular sugar, particularly for diabetics, but some doctors and scientists find this difficult to believe because:

  • GI measurements can vary between individuals, and between different food batches or manufacturers.
  • the research results are an average of the participants GI readings, but the individual readings were not revealed.
  • sugar is unhealthy largely because of its fructose content. Table sugar, or sucrose, is 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. Coconut sugar is 70 to 80 percent sucrose—which is half fructose.
  • the fructose content of coconut sugar makes it comparable to sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey, and cane sugar, so it seems unlikely its effects on the body would be much different.
  • the nutritional claims for coconut sugar need to be verified; and the nutritional quality of coconut sugar depends on the type and age of the source tree, and the time of year sap is drawn.
  • the GI of coconut sugar is irrelevant since the GI is not directly applicable to sweeteners, according to Dr. Andrew Weil.

Further research may prove that coconut sugar is healthier than regular, and why. For now, it only seems safe to assume it is no worse for you than table sugar, but maybe not better—just less bad.

People with diabetes may want to experiment in the kitchen with coconut sugar but should do so with their doctor's knowledge, and monitor their glucose levels carefully.

Sources: Authority Nutrition; Tropical Traditions; Dr. Weil; Low Carb Diets
Photo credit: Swaminathan (@flickr)

Photo of coconuts by Dr Roland Bourdeix

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