It seems like every decade or so, there is a food group that is viewed as a villain in the diet world. In the ’80s, it was fat. In the early ’00s, it was carbs. Now, it seems to be added sugar—but with good reason: Studies show that excessive sugar can be bad for health. Thus, people are now looking towards table sugar alternatives, one of which is coconut sugar. But is it really a healthier alternative?
Why Is Sugar Bad for You?
First, a look at why sugar is considered evil. Studies have shown that added sugar may have the following detrimental effects on health:
Obesity. One of the main sugar culprits behind alarming weight gain: sugary sodas and fruit juices. A review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that sugary beverages promote weight gain in both adults and children.
Diabetes. The journal PLoS One cites a population study that found the risk of developing diabetes increased by 1.1% for every 150 calories of sugar consumed. Sugary drinks are likewise linked to diabetes.
Heart disease. Among numerous studies linking excessive sugar to heart disease is one study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, which found that those whose added sugar intake made up 17-21% of their caloric intake had a 38% risk of dying from heart disease.
Premature aging. Telomeres are the caps that protect DNA strands from deterioration. These shorten as we get older. A study indicated that consuming high amounts of sugar can speed up the shortening of telomeres, which in turn speeds up the aging process.
What Is Coconut Sugar?
Coconut sugar isn’t actually made from the coconut fruit. Rather it’s made using the sap of the flower bud stem of the coconut palm. Its other names are coco sugar, coconut palm sugar, coco sap sugar, and coconut blossom sugar. A type of palm sugar, it differs from table sugar which is typically cane sugar, made from reduced sugar cane juice.
To make coconut sugar, farmers harvest the sap from the flower bud stem of a coconut tree into bamboo containers. The sap is then transferred to woks and heated into a syrup. The final product can be this syrup, or reduced some more until it crystallizes. Unlike white sugar, which is refined, coconut sugar is left with its distinctive brown color, brought about by caramelization. Its flavor profile is similar to that of regular table sugar, although it may have subtle nuances depending on the source.
Coconut Sugar Nutrition
Is it more nutritious than cane sugar? The simple answer is not by much. In terms of calories, they have the same amount at four calories per gram. Coconut sugar is said to have slightly less fructose than cane sugar, but the difference is negligible. In terms of nutrients, coconut sugar has more amino acids, minerals, and vitamins as these are all removed from cane sugar as it is refined. However, this still doesn’t make coconut sugar a health food—you’ll need to ingest large quantities of the stuff to reap the benefits of the nutrients, and ingesting copious amounts of the sweet stuff will essentially do more harm than good.
One of the health indicators that people look at now is the glycemic index or GI, which measures the effect of food has on blood sugar. Simply put, the lower the GI, the better. The GI of coconut sugar swings wildly from resource to resource (anywhere from mid-30s to mid-50s; anything above 55 is considered high), perhaps due to the various types and sources of coconut sugar. Coconut sugar that has a low GI (around 36) has a fiber called inulin, which is said to manage the absorption of glucose.
The Bottom Line
Some people may assume that coconut sugar is nutritious because it’s more natural than white sugar, is unrefined, and has a lower GI, and thus see it as a reason to use coconut sugar liberally. But while it is slightly better for you than white sugar, this is not an excuse to jack up your sugar intake; moderation is the key. If you’re interested in making a few changes to your pantry essentials, it couldn’t hurt to trade in your refined white sugar for coconut sugar, but use it as sparingly as you would any other sugar.