Coconut sugar is billed as a wholesome, healthy alternative to regular sugar. But is that true? Here are the facts!
Coconut sugar is trendy right now, billed as a wholesome alternative to sugar and cropping up in recipes for “healthier” baked goods. It’s even been dubbed a “superfood”.
It’s also a lot pricier than sugar. At my neighborhood grocery store, a one-pound bag of coconut sugar cost $3.49, while a four-pound bag of store-brand white sugar was on sale for $1.89. That’s ten times the cost per ounce!
So are there benefits to coconut sugar that make it worth that extra cost? Is it really a “healthy” sugar? Let’s take a look.
What is Coconut Sugar?
Coconut sugar is made using sap from flower buds on the coconut tree. The sap is heated and dried to form granules of sugar. Coconut sugar is brown in color and has a slight caramel flavor. Organic coconut sugar come from crops grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides.
Coconut sugar can be used one-for-one in place of white table sugar in recipes, though your recipes may come out (and taste) a bit different when using it.
Is Coconut Sugar Good For You?
Here are the facts about coconut sugar nutrition: Per teaspoon, it has the same number of calories (15) and carbohydrates (4 grams) as table sugar. It has no fiber, protein, or meaningful amounts of vitamins or minerals.
You may have seen information online about how nutritious coconut sugar is compared to regular sugar. But the high amounts of vitamins and minerals mentioned in articles are usually based on a much larger amount of coconut sugar than you’d actually eat.
For instance, I saw a comparison chart online showing that coconut sugar has 10,000mg of potassium. Wow, that’s a lot! The catch: That’s the amount in one kilogram of coconut sugar–in other words, about FIVE CUPS.
I’ve also seen claims that coconut sugar is healthier than other sweeteners because it’s free from fructose, which some research suggests may be not be good for the body when consumed in large amounts. But coconut sugar is actually up to 90 percent sucrose, and sucrose breaks down in the body into glucose and fructose.
Is Coconut Sugar a Low Glycemic Sweetener?
One of the main selling points of coconut sugar is that it has a lower glycemic index than white sugar. That’s true, but it’s not as clear-cut as it sounds.
First, here’s what the glycemic index actually is: The Glycemic Index (GI) ranks foods on a scale of 0-100 based on how much they raise the blood sugar after eating them. A low-GI food (55 or less) means it won’t cause your blood sugar to spike as much as high-GI foods (70 or more). It’s thought that eating a diet rich in lower-GI foods is good for your health because it can help keep blood sugar levels lower. That, in turn, can help reduce the risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
There are claims that the GI of coconut sugar is 35, which would make it much lower-GI than regular table sugar (which has a GI of 60). This value of 35 appears to be based on a study of 10 subjects from the Food and Nutrition Research Institute at the Philippines. Ten people doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s actually all that’s needed to determine the glycemic index value of a food.
And that’s just one drawback of the glycemic index. The glycemic response can also vary from person to person and change depending on what else is eaten during the meal. And it has nothing to do with how nutritious a food actually is. For instance, jellybeans are slightly lower on the index than red potatoes–even though jellybeans are candy and red potatoes are rich in fiber, vitamin C, and potassium.
What’s more, the official glycemic index actually ranks coconut sugar at 54, much closer to table sugar at 60.
So if all the hype about coconut sugar is based around its ranking on the glycemic index, that feels a little flimsy to me.
Is Coconut Sugar Less processed?
Coconut sugar is touted as being less processed that regular table sugar. Coconut sugar is made by heating the sap until the liquid evaporates off, then grinding it into granules of sugar. It’s akin to raw table sugar, which does not have molasses removed and retains a darker color.
On the other hand, white sugar is “cleaned” by removing molasses and impurities using lime and carbon dioxide. White sugar is also filtered and spun in a centrifuge to remove impurities.
So it sounds like coconut sugar does involve fewer steps to take it from plant to bag. And it is “unrefined”, which means that impurities aren’t removed. But “unrefined” isn’t the same as “unprocessed”. There is still processing involved in making coconut sugar.
Should you use coconut sugar?
If you like the flavor of coconut sugar, feel free to use it–though you may achieve the same flavor with brown sugar for a much lower cost.
If you want to use coconut sugar in your coffee or baking with the hopes of controlling your blood sugar, by all means give it a try.
But don’t believe the hype that it’s a nutritious superfood. And don’t buy into the notion that recipes using coconut sugar magically transform brownies and cupcakes into health foods. Coconut sugar is still an added sugar, just like white sugar, honey, or molasses–which should all be eaten in moderation.