The harmful effects of added sugar are becoming increasingly more evident.
As a result, people are turning to natural alternatives.
A sweetener that has become very popular in the past few years is coconut sugar.
This sugar is derived from the coconut palm tree and touted as being more nutritious and lower on the glycemic index than sugar.
This article separates the facts from the fiction to determine if coconut sugar is really a healthy sugar alternative.
Coconut sugar is also called coconut palm sugar.
It’s a natural sugar made from coconut palm sap, which is the sugary circulating fluid of the coconut plant. It is often confused with palm sugar, which is similar but made from a different type of palm tree.
Coconut sugar is made in a natural 2-step process:
- A cut is made on the flower of the coconut palm and the liquid sap is collected into containers.
- The sap is placed under heat until most of the water has evaporated.
The end product is brown and granulated. Its color is similar to that of raw sugar, but the particle size is typically smaller or more variable.
Summary Coconut sugar is the dehydrated sap of the coconut palm.
Regular table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup don't contain any vital nutrients and therefore supply "empty" calories.
However, coconut sugar does retain quite a bit of the nutrients found in the coconut palm.
Most notable of these are the minerals iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, along with some short-chain fatty acids like polyphenols and antioxidants.
Then it contains a fiber called inulin, which may slow glucose absorption and explain why coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than regular table sugar (1).
Even though coconut sugar contains some nutrients, you would get a lot more from real foods.
Coconut sugar is very high in calories (same as regular sugar) and you'd have to eat a ridiculous amount of it to satisfy your need for the above nutrients.
Summary Coconut sugar contains small amounts of minerals, antioxidants and fiber. However, its high sugar content outweighs any potential benefits.
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly foods raise blood sugar levels.
Glucose is given a GI of 100. For comparison, foods with a GI of 50 raise blood sugar levels half as much as pure glucose.
Table sugar has a GI of around 60, whereas coconut sugar has been measured with a GI of 54 (2).
However, it is important to note that GI can vary greatly between individuals and may also differ between batches of coconut sugar.
Although its inulin content probably slows sugar absorption somewhat, it’s unclear whether this modest difference in GI has any health relevance.
Summary Coconut sugar causes a slightly lower rise in blood sugar than regular table sugar. However, the respective health benefits are probably modest.
Added sugar is unhealthy because it causes a significant rise in blood sugar levels. It’s also nutrient poor, providing virtually no vitamins or minerals, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Another possible reason added sugar is so unhealthy is its high fructose content.
Regular table sugar (sucrose) is 50% fructose and 50% glucose, while high-fructose corn syrup is roughly 55% fructose and 45% glucose.
Despite frequent claims that coconut sugar is effectively fructose-free, it’s made of 70–80% sucrose, which is half fructose.
For this reason, coconut sugar supplies almost the same amount of fructose as regular sugar, gram for gram.
Consumed in excess, added sugars may cause all sorts of problems like metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Although coconut sugar has a slightly better nutrient profile than table sugar, its health effects should be largely similar.
Use coconut sugar in moderation, just as you would use regular table sugar.
Summary Coconut sugar is high in fructose. Evidence suggests that a high intake of fructose may promote metabolic syndrome in obese people.
At the end of the day, coconut sugar is no miracle food.
It’s very similar to regular table sugar, although it’s not as processed and contains minor amounts of nutrients. If you're going to use coconut sugar, use it sparingly.
Coconut sugar belongs in the same boat as most sugar alternatives. It’s healthier than refined sugar but definitely worse than no sugar at all.