It’s not too often you hear anyone say sugar has health benefits, but the health benefits of coconut sugar have been known for generations in Asian countries. Also, mostly you read studies about how sugar and artificial sweeteners are associated with cancer, diabetes, and obesity. But coconut sugar isn’t like the regular refined white sugar found in sugar bowls, cereals, and tens of thousands of processed foods. The differences between coconut sugar and refined sugar are sweet enough to give the former sweetener a clear advantage over the latter. Here’s the story.
How coconut sugar is made
Coconut sugar, which is also known as coconut palm sugar or coco sap sugar, is made from the sap collected from the flower buds cut from the coconut palm. Only certain species of coconut trees can be used to make coconut sugar, and typically these trees are found in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
The sap or nectar is gathered from the spadix, which is a cluster of flowers on a fleshy stem (called the florescence). This nectar is heated to evaporate the moisture and reduced to a syrup-like substance called “toddy.” The toddy is then reduced to form a paste or granules, with the final form being more coarse than refined white sugar and with a light brown color.
When you taste coconut sugar you’ll discover there’s a hint of butterscotch or caramel flavor and a sweetness that is similar to that of brown sugar. Because coconut sugar is natural, the sweetness, color, and flavor can vary from batch to batch, depending on when the coconut sap is harvested, the species of coconut used, and the time of year of harvest. Despite these small differences, coconut sugar appears to be a winner.
Health benefits of coconut sugar
One major health advantage coconut sugar has over refined white table sugar is that it’s natural and not refined. That means coconut sugar retains its vitamins and minerals, which include vitamins C, B1 B2, B3, and B6, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc. Coconut sugar also contains much less fructose (3 to 9 percent) than does white table sugar (50 percent), according to Andrew Weil, MD, which is an advantage if you want to keep your fructose intake low.
Coconut sugar consists mainly of sucrose plus small levels of fructose and glucose. If you have diabetes or are concerned about prediabetes, you will be pleased to know that coconut sugar has a glycemic index of 35. This means coconut sugar is classified as a low glycemic index food and suitable for diabetics because it does not have a dramatic impact on blood sugar levels. The average glycemic index of other sweeteners are as follows: table sugar (68), brown sugar (64), honey (55, but there is a wide range), maple syrup (54), and agave syrup (15).
How sustainable is coconut sugar?
Coconut trees are known as the “trees of life” because they provide more than 100 different important and profitable products for farmers and communities, ranging from coconut husks for fuel to coconut water as a beverage and coconut sap for sugar. They are both hardy and ecologically beneficial because they need little water and yet are capable of producing 50 to 75 percent more sugar per acre than sugar cane.
According to one source, coconut trees that are used to collect nectar become sap trees, which means they no longer are used to produce coconuts. Less than 1 percent of the total number of coconut trees in the Philippines reportedly are used for making coconut sugar. Coconut trees picked to serve as sap trees usually are old (more than half a century), when their coconut production has already declined.
Because coconut trees are so important for people and profit, the incentive to protect and maintain them is great. Efforts are being made by coconut sugar producers and nongovernment organizations to educate local farmers and communities about the benefits of sustainable coconut tree management.