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Is Coconut Sugar a Healthy Alternative?

Intro

Highlights

  1. Coconut sugar contains inulin, a naturally occurring, indigestible carbohydrate.
  2. Some brands are mixed with regular sugar, so read labels carefully.
  3. If you substitute coconut sugar for white sugar when cooking, it may alter the taste and color of the final product.

Coconut sugar, also known as coconut palm sugar, is made from the sweet sap of the coconut palm tree. It’s not the same as palm sugar, which comes from a different tree.

Coconut sugar is made by collecting liquid sap from flower buds on the coconut palm tree. The sap is boiled and dehydrated to create coconut sugar. The final product looks and tastes like brown sugar.

Coconut sugar is making a name for itself. In the past few years, regular sugar and high fructose corn syrup have been in the media as being unhealthy.

Read on to learn if coconut sugar is a healthy choice, or simply another health hoax.

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Calories

Calories in coconut sugar

Coconut Sugar

Both coconut sugar and regular granulated sugar have 15 calories per teaspoon and 4 grams of carbohydrate. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, coconut sugar is 3 to 9 percent fructose. Regular sugar is 50 percent fructose.

Fructose intake spurs the liver to produce more triglycerides. The less fructose your liver needs to contend with, the better. This makes coconut sugar a better choice than regular cane sugar.

Glycemic index

Coconut sugar and the glycemic index

The glycemic index ranks how fast specific carb-containing foods raise your blood sugar levels (glucose). Low glycemic foods (ranked 55 or lower) have the least impact on blood sugar. High glycemic foods (70 or higher) have the most impact. The United States doesn’t have a standard glycemic scale. According to a Philippine Department of Agriculture (PDA) report, coconut sugar has a glycemic index of 35.

Coconut sugar is 70 to 79 percent sucrose (“table sugar”). It’s 3 to 9 percent of both fructose and glucose. If you do an internet search on the health benefits of coconut sugar, you’ll find plenty of websites claiming that coconut sugar is a low glycemic food and good for people with diabetes.

But there’s a catch: The glycemic index only measures how foods affect blood glucose levels. Fructose, which as noted above is not considered healthy, has a very low glycemic index. Dr. Weil indicates that the glycemic index isn’t directly relevant to sweeteners since their impact on glucose levels does not indicate which is a better choice.

According to the Joslin Diabetes Center, the glycemic index isn’t necessarily a good indicator of what may happen to your blood sugar levels after eating, when it’s used alone. Many factors influence the process, including:

  • your age
  • your activity level
  • the fiber and fat content of foods
  • how a food was processed and prepared
  • what else you ate with a food
  • your digestion rate

So what does this mean for you? If you have diabetes or are trying to manage your blood glucose, coconut sugar is generally considered the same as other sugars as far as carbohydrate content and blood sugar impact. According to the American Diabetes Association, coconut sugar should be treated like regular sugar since it contains the same number of calories and carbs. In addition, some brands of coconut sugar may be mixed with regular sugar.

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Nutrients

Does coconut sugar have more nutrients than white sugar?

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar is less processed than regular sugar. It may retain more nutrients, although research is ongoing. It may contain antioxidants and several minerals, including:

  • zinc
  • iron
  • calcium
  • potassium

At first glance, it may seem that coconut sugar has a good nutrient profile. However, take a second look. Most people only eat 1 teaspoon or less of coconut sugar at a time. If you read the nutrition labels on most brands of coconut sugar, 1 teaspoon has 0-2 percent of all nutrients except carbohydrates.

You’d have to eat an enormous amount of coconut sugar in one sitting to come close to getting these nutrients in the amount your body needs. And that would put your calorie and sugar intake off the charts. In addition, scientific evidence is lacking on which nutrients are actually in coconut sugar, and it varies between brands.

Inulin

Inulin in coconut sugar

Research shows that coconut sugar has no measurable dietary fiber. But it contains inulin, a naturally occurring, indigestible carbohydrate. Inulin is considered a prebiotic because it’s fermented in the intestines and becomes food for beneficial bacteria. According to a 2016 study, fermentable carbs such as inulin may improve insulin sensitivity and have beneficial metabolic effects in people at risk for diabetes.

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How to use

How to use coconut sugar

Coconut sugar may be substituted for white sugar or brown sugar. It works well in baked goods and chocolate. It’s also popular in Vietnamese cuisine. If you substitute coconut sugar for white sugar, it may alter the taste and color of the final product.

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Bottom line

Bottom line

Coconut sugar is almost 80 percent sugar in the form of sucrose, fructose, and glucose. Unless you’re eating massive amounts, its nutrient values are insignificant. Even if you ate enough coconut sugar to get more nutrients, the excessive calorie and fructose intake would cancel out any benefits.

Coconut sugar can’t be called healthy. But it’s a healthier alternative to table sugar because it contains inulin. It also has far less fructose than table sugar and is less refined.

If you’re watching your sugar and carb intakes, read nutrition labels carefully. Plan your meals and snacks accordingly.

If you’re looking for a sweetener that is easy on your liver and blood sugar levels, opt for organic stevia (rebaudioside A) or erythritol, a sugar alcohol that research shows doesn’t have the same gastrointestinal side effects as other sugar alcohols.

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