Ingredient Intelligence

3 Things You Need to Know About Coconut Sugar

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Every few years, a new “natural” sweetener hits store shelves promising to be the holy grail of the health food world — the perfect substitute for cane sugar. But there’s always a catch (we’re looking at you, agave), and today’s sweet miracle is no different.

I’m talking about coconut sugar. This “healthy alternative” has a dirty little secret.

What Is Coconut Sugar?

Simply put, coconut sugar is sugar that’s made from the sap of the coconut palm tree. Compared to cane sugar, it’s less refined and has a lower glycemic index — around 35 compared to 65 for regular sugar (although there is some dispute). This makes coconut sugar less likely to cause a spike in blood sugar levels.

Finally, coconut sugar may be more sustainable; reports show coconut palms produce at least 50 percent more sugar per acre than sugar cane, while using far less water and not depleting the soil.

But before you trade your box of Domino for coconut sugar, there are a few things you should know.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

3 Things You Should Know About Coconut Sugar

1. It’s still sugar.

While coconut sugar contains trace amounts plant minerals like zinc, iron, calcium, and potassium, it’s still sugar. It has the same calories as regular sugar, and those minerals? Emphasis on the word trace; they don’t add up to much.

2. It contains fructose.

One reason why coconut sugar scores lower on the glycemic index is inulin, an indigestible plant fiber that helps slow down the rate that glucose is absorbed into the blood. The other reason? Fructose, which has been linked to a whole host of problems for the liver, including inflammation, fatty liver disease, and insulin resistance, according to the Harvard Medical School health blog.

Coconut sugar has at least as much fructose, if not a bit more, than regular sugar. Plus if you want the low-glycemic benefits of inulin, you can get it in a much more nutritious form by eating certain high-fiber fruits and vegetables like bananas and asparagus.

3. Not all palm trees are created equal.

Even though some websites claim the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) called coconut sugar the most sustainable in the world, the FAO told the nonprofit Grace Communications Foundation that it never made this claim. Instead, it says, sustainability depends on which variety of palm tree the sap is coming from, where it’s growing, and how it’s produced.

So, what’s the bottom line?

The earthy flavor of coconut sugar definitely has its place, especially as fall baking season gets underway.

But, as with anything, moderation is key. Also, consider the source. Look for brands that are transparent about their harvesting methods, and for the Fair Trade label, which ensures the farmers are getting a fair deal, too.

Have you tried coconut sugar? What’s your favorite way to use it?