Coconut Sugar: A Highly Sustainable and Healthy Sweetener
Made from the sap of cut flower buds from the coconut palm, coconut sugar and coconut nectar are a source of minerals, vitamin C, B vitamins, and some amino acids. Coconut sugar has been used as a traditional sweetener for thousands of years in South and South-East Asia.
How Does Coconut Sugar Compare with Cane Sugar?
Sweeteners derived from cane sugar can overly stress the pancreas as the glycemic index of these sweeteners is high compared with coconut sugar. Even maple syrup has a rather high glycemic index in comparison.
The glycemic index (GI) is the rate of how fast blood sugar levels rise after eating a particular type of food. A high GI means that the food is rapidly absorbed by the body, spiking the blood sugar causing the pancreas to release large amounts of insulin. A low GI indicates a food that is more slowly absorbed, thereby preventing that health damaging insulin spike.
The glycemic index of a food can be reduced by eating healthy fats along with the sweetener of choice. Hence, traditional desserts such as cream and fruit, cookies made with butter, and flan (eggs, sugar, whole milk). However, for some with blood sugar issues, this is not enough to prevent problems with insulin.
Here is the glycemic index of many common sweeteners on the market (higher GI = higher blood sugar spike).
Monk fruit 0
Yacon Syrup 1
Date Sugar and Syrup 20
Brown Rice Syrup (traditionally made) 25
Coconut Sugar/Nectar 30
Palm Jaggery 35
Raw Honey 35-58
Malted Barley 40
Organic Sugar 47
Maple Syrup 54
Blackstrap Molasses 54
Evaporated Cane Juice 55
Raw Sugar (Turbinado) 65
Corn Syrup 75
White Sugar 80
High Fructose Corn Syrup 87
Brown Rice Syrup (industrialized) 98
Low GI vs High GI Sweeteners
After looking at this chart, you may be thinking, “Xylitol and agave have a very low glycemic index. Why not use those?”
The problem is that xylitol and agave nectar are both very highly processed. It’s not just the glycemic index that comes into play when selecting a sweetener, but how it is made that needs to also be considered.
What about stevia and brown rice syrup? Those are both good options, but practically speaking, they don’t work well for all baking situations.
Palm sugar is much more versatile and is easily substituted for cane sugar in baking recipes 1:1. Thus, I find it a practical as well as a healthy choice. It is sweet with no coconut flavor. Hence, there is no risk of drastically altering the flavor of a dish.
The ideal coconut sugar has been made using low temperature processing that involves evaporation of the sap from the coconut blossoms into crystals. Evaporation temperature is about 100F for an hour or two. As a result of this low temperature, enzymes remain intact.
Some coconut sugar manufacturers boil the nectar down to crystalize it, so check labels carefully or contact the manufacturer first if you desire raw coconut sugar.
Of course, moderation is key as with the use of all natural sweeteners – even coconut sugar. No more than 3 TBL per day (or 5% of total calories) of even a natural sweetener is a good rule of thumb.
Why Coconut Sugar is Good for the Environment
Unfortunately, misinformation about the sustainability of coconut and palm sugar has been making the rounds on the internet to the massive detriment of those earnestly seeking healthier sweeteners.
The article primarily responsible for promoting the notion that coconut sugar is unsustainable insists that coconut trees cannot produce both coconut palm sugar (derived from the nectar of the coconut blossom) and coconuts simultaneously. Moreover, the article states that the increasing popularity of palm sugar will cause the price of products like coconut oil, coconut flour, and shredded coconut to skyrocket because low income coconut tree farmers will choose to use their trees to produce coconut sugar instead of mature coconuts.
Only the rich able to afford the healthy and beneficial fats from coconuts because a growing number of consumers enjoy and use coconut sugar and coconut nectar?
Coconut Tree Tapping: The Reality vs the Hype
There are numerous, reputable sources that insist that the negative press about coconut sugar has completely missed the mark. Tapping a coconut tree for its sap is a centuries old tradition. It does not harm the tree or impact the tree’s ability to produce coconuts.
Coconut palm trees are in high abundance throughout the world, most of which are not even being used for either sap or coconuts! They are a sustainable resource ready and available to be used!
There is no evidence that sap production is overtaking or even threatening coconut production. Coconut oil exports are booming from the Philippines, a top coconut oil exporter. Shipments for the first seven months of 2010 surpassed those for the entire 12 months in 2009. A slump in exports due to bad weather in 2011 (not rising coconut palm sugar sales) was followed by an expected rebound in 2012 of 12.3% for coconut oil and 21% for copra (dried coconut meat).
World Bank: Coconut Palm Sugar IS Sustainable
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the World Bank reports that coconut palm sweeteners are the single most sustainable sweetener in the world!
The reason is because coconut palms are a tree crop which benefits the environment ecologically. Their cultivation restores damaged soil requiring very little water in the process. In addition, coconut palms produce more sugar per acre than sugar cane (50-75% more). At the same time, they use less than 20% of the soil nutrients and water for that high level of production.
Besides the World Bank, the Philippines at the Davao Research Center demonstrated that it is possible to produce sap for making coconut palm sugar as well as coconuts from the same tree. All that needs to be done is tap the coconut sap in the first half of the coconut blossoms. Then, allow the remaining half of the blossoms to develop into mature, 12 month coconuts. This method for tapping both sap and coconuts from the same tree yields 5-7 times higher productivity than traditional methods.
Trees Tapped for Palm Sugar Live a Long Time
Moreover, once a coconut tree is tapped, sap continues to flow for the next 2 decades or so. This is highly sustainable and obviously supportive to the tree itself else it would die.
The fact is that coconut oil and coconut sugar are both Traditional Foods. It isn’t a choice of one over the other as they have completely different purposes in the kitchen. Both are used and enjoyed in my home and there isn’t any reason why both shouldn’t be in yours too.
Learn More About Healthy Sweeteners
If you are seeking coconut sugar that is raw and also sustainable, click here for the brand I use in my home and feel very good about.
If you wish to learn more about healthy sweeteners, check out the linked article for an in depth video discussing the alternatives.
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
Sources and More Information
Avoid the Sugar Alcohols to Protect Gut Health
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Weston A. Price Foundation.
Sarah was awarded Activist of the Year at the International Wise Traditions Conference in 2010.
Sarah earned a Bachelor of Arts (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in Economics from Furman University and a Master’s degree in Government (Financial Management) from the University of Pennsylvania.
Mother to three healthy children, blogger, and best-selling author, she writes about the practical application of Traditional Diet and evidence-based wellness within the modern household. Her work has been featured by USA Today, The New York Times, National Review, ABC, NBC, and many others.