Coconut sugar is growing in popularity. This trend is fueled by the movement toward natural sweeteners as well as the growing popularity of anything coconut. If you haven’t noticed, coconuts are on a roll. Coconut oil, coconut flour, coconut water – you name it – if it comes from a coconut, it’s making a splash. It looks like companies are finding every way possible to extract the goodness from coconuts.
Still, we know that popularity isn’t necessarily synonymous with health. Pizza and french fries are popular too but hardly foods health-conscious people eat on a regular basis. Yet, more people of all ages are looking for a natural substitute for table sugar. Artificial sweeteners aren’t the answer. Recent studies show such sweeteners as sucralose and aspartame may harm healthy gut bacteria that are so important for good health. Plus, there are questions about how these sweeteners impact appetite hormones and the action of insulin.
So, hoping to enjoy a little, not unhealthy sweetness, more people are turning to natural sweetener alternatives, one of them being coconut sugar. What is coconut sugar and is it a healthier alternative to sugar and artificial sweetener?
What is Coconut Sugar?
Coconut sugar is harvested from flowers that grow on the coconut palm tree and doesn’t come directly from the coconut fruit. After harvesting the flowers, manufacturers drain the sweet-tasting sap. Then, they heat the sap long enough to evaporate some of the water. This thickens it and creates a syrup with a pleasantly sweet taste. Yum! No one will argue that coconut sugar has a pleasing flavor.
How does this form of sweet stuff compare to sugar? To its credit, coconut sugar is less highly processed than table sugar, also known as sucrose. To convert raw sugar to table sugar, raw sugar is exposed to high heat and manipulated with machinery to produce highly processed crystals. What emerges from the refining of table sugar is a product that is devoid of nutrients but one that still contains calories, about 15 calories per serving. That’s why you hear table sugar referred to as “empty calories.” It is! But is coconut sugar any better?
How Coconut Sugar and Table Sugar Differ
Using coconut sugar as a replacement for table sugar won’t save you any calories. Coconut sugar and table sugar both have around 15 calories per teaspoon. You may hear that coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index, meaning it impacts your blood glucose level less than table sugar. The reason for the lower glycemic index is coconut sugar contains a fiber-like material called inulin. When you consume coconut sugar, inulin slows the rate of glucose absorption.
But, like table sugar or sucrose, which is 50% glucose and 50% fructose, coconut sugar contains fructose. In fact, research shows coconut sugar is about 80% sucrose, meaning it contains a significant amount of fructose. So, despite advertisers who claim coconut sugar is fructose-free, it’s not.
Why is this a problem? Fructose is a controversial sugar. When you consume it, your body processes it differently than glucose. With fructose, your liver does most of the work. In fact, some studies link fructose with a common condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. From a fructose standpoint, coconut sugar suffers from some of the same issues as table sugar.
Is Coconut Sugar More Nutritious?
We know that table sugar is just empty calories with no nutrition. Coconut sugar fares a bit better from a nutrition standpoint. Since it’s processed minimally, it has some nutrients that sugar doesn’t, including modest amounts of calcium, potassium, iron, and zinc. In addition, it has a small number of B vitamins as well as some antioxidants.
How important are those extra nutrients? Next to healthy, whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, coconut sugar pales from a nutritional perspective. Veggies, fruits, and other healthy foods are where your nutrients should come from, not from sugar you use to sweeten a food or beverage Besides, it takes a lot of coconut sugar to make something sweet, unlike non-calorie sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit where you only need a small amount.
Two other advantages of coconut sugar over table sugar: it’s not genetically modified and it’s more environmentally friendly and sustainable.
Coconut sugar IS less processed than table sugar (sucrose). This gives it slightly more nutritional value than highly processed table sugar but in the bigger scheme of things the added nutrients are rather modest. Yes, it does have a lower glycemic index, but as the American Diabetes Association points out, diabetics should treat it the same as table sugar – limit the amount they consume. It also suffers from some of the same problems table sugar does – it’s relatively high in calories and contains fructose. Ideally, it’s better to avoid fructose unless you’re getting it by eating a piece of whole fruit with its additional fiber and phytochemicals.
All in all, coconut sugar is marginally better than table sugar but neither forms of sugar are healthful. Unfortunately, coconut sugar has a “health halo” around it, partially because it comes from the same tree as a coconut. But don’t let it trick you into using too much of it. The healthiest option is to limit the amount of ALL sugars in your diet. If you wean yourself slowly off of sugar and sweeteners, your taste buds will adapt and you won’t need them as much, if at all.
Don’t forget, there are calorie-free sweetener options that are more natural than the ubiquitous artificial sweeteners that come in pink, blue, and yellow packets. Stevia and monk fruit are two plant-derived alternatives with zero calories and no measurable blood sugar impact. Although some versions of stevia are processed and contain additives like erythritol, sugar alcohol, stevia appears to be safe based on most studies. In fact, it’s been used in other countries, like Brazil and Japan, for decades without ill effects. In fact, stevia seems to improve blood sugar control in diabetics.
First priority – retrain your sweet tooth by reducing every week how much sugar/sweetener you add to coffee and other beverages. Slowly eliminate other sources of sugar from your diet – pastries, cookies, candy, etc. Doing it gradually gives you time to adjust. Until you can tame your taste for sweet, use a calorie-free, somewhat natural alternative like stevia or monk fruit.
Journal ASEAN Food Journal 1992 Vol. 7 No. 4 pp. 200-201.
Fooducate. “What is Coconut Sugar? Is it Healthier than Table Sugar?”
Medical Daily. “High-Fructose, High-Fat Diet Exacerbates Damage to Liver; Drinking Water Is Best”
American Diabetes Association. “Coconut Palm Sugar”
Related Articles By Cathe: