Coconut Sugar: Is It the Healthier Sugar Alternative?

Coconut Sugar: Is It the Healthier Sugar Alternative?

Did you also learn in school when you were a child that the coconut tree is the “Tree of Life?” I remember seeing a poster of the coconut tree with indicated uses of each of its parts. The trunk can be used for shelter, the tough skin for landscaping, the mature coconut meat for copra which is used in different beauty products, the shell for charcoal, and so on as there are still many other different uses. 

Most commonly, coconut is known as our food. Isn’t it refreshing to drink fresh coconut juice and its meat? Definitely, yes! Another form of food we get from coconut is its sugar which has gained popularity as a healthier natural sweetener and sugar substitute for the regular table sugar (or white sugar). 

What is Coconut Sugar?

Coconut sugar is the dehydrated sap of the coconut palm tree. 

The process of making the coconut sugar starts with collecting the sap from the flower bud system of the coconut tree, and then boiling and dehydrating it, causing the water to evaporate and the granules to caramelize, leaving behind the small, brown, subtly sweet coconut sugar (or coconut palm sugar) with a slight hint of caramel. 

Coconut Sugar vs White Sugar and Its Benefits

In terms of calorie and carbohydrate content, coconut sugar and white sugar contains the same amount which is 16 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrates per teaspoon. The differences (and benefits) of coconut sugar versus white (or refined) sugar is its glycemic index and nutritional content. 

1. Has a Little Lower Glycemic Index (GI)

GI is a measurement evaluating how quickly foods raise our blood sugar levels. The classification of foods in terms of GI are Low (GI of 0-55), Medium (56-69), and High (70-100). 

Coconut sugar ranges have a GI of 35-50 (Low) while white sugar has a GI of around 60-65 (Medium). 

Medium to High GI foods can cause your blood sugar to spike suddenly which takes a toll on your insulin level. Thus, choosing coconut sugar over white sugar can benefit individuals with diabetes or those who are watching their blood sugars. 

2. Contains Small Amounts of Vitamins, Minerals and Phytonutrients

Compared to white sugar which does not contain any nutrients at all (empty calories), coconut sugar contains small amounts of nutrients like iron and zinc, and some phytonutrients like polyphenols, flavonoids, and anthocyanins that help reduce blood sugar, inflammation, and cholesterol. A study of the nutritional and health benefits of coconut sugar from the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) supports this.  

Risks

Though coconut sugar is a more natural sweetener than white sugar, it still is sugar with the same calories as white sugar. Thus, moderation is key. 

There are no available studies yet on its precautions or side effects, but of course, do not consume too much sugar of any kind because a diet high in sugar may increase the risks of cardiovascular disease, elevated blood sugar levels causing diabetes and elevated blood pressure. 

Moreover, added sugars should be eaten with a limit due to their high fructose content. Coconut sugar supplies almost the same amount of fructose as white sugar. It is made of 70-80% sucrose which is half fructose, while white sugar is 50% fructose. A study found that high fructose consumption is a key factor in the development of the metabolic syndrome and hypertension. 

Daily Serving Recommendation, Tips and Some Recipes to Try

The WHO guidelines on free sugar intakes for adults and children, which was also the recommendation in the Philippine Dietary Reference Intakes 2015, is to limit intake to less than 10% of total energy. The free sugars refer to all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook, or consumer, including sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit concentrates. Coconut sugar, or any type of sugar, is included in this free sugar recommendation. 

In a 1-2000 calorie diet, the limit is 120 calories from free sugars. This translates to 8-9 teaspoons or 4 tablespoons of coconut sugar. But of course, you would not want that amount, and you would consider the sugar content of all the free sugars in your diet. The lesser the amount, the better. 

In reading nutrition labels on packaged products, choose foods that have less than 10% of the daily value of sugar. In cooking, try half of the amount of the sugar first, then add if necessary based on your preference. 

Here are some recipes you could try using coconut sugar; 

Food For Thought

Coconut sugar is a healthier alternative to white (or refined) sugar as it is natural or minimally processed, has a lower GI, and contains a minor amount of nutrients. However, the number of nutrient trace minerals that you would be getting while still consuming daily limits of sugars are quite negligible, and you would be much better getting these from other whole plant food sources. However, on days when we can’t resist, and just want to add a little of bit of this caramel-like sweetness to our palette, remember: moderation is key!

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Roni Matalog

Roni is a Registered Nutritionist-Dietitian. She completed her certification in Plant-Based Nutrition from eCornell University and T.Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. Her interest in plant-based nutrition, holistic wellness and sustainable living only intensified in recent years, but she has long been passionate about helping individuals make positive and sustainable changes to their health, to be able to live and enjoy a better quality of life while being mindful of the environment and all beings. She founded Plants & Purpose where she offers her services and shares things about plant-based nutrition.

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