There is sugar, and then there is sugar. That found in fruits and vegetables, for instance, is part and parcel of a nutritious, high-fiber whole food. But as we all know by now, it’s the added sugars in processed foods, prepared foods, and beverages, such as soft drinks and sports or energy drinks, that can wreak havoc on our health.
Lots of folks turn to alternative sweeteners such as stevia or agave nectar, which are viewed as less processed than table sugar.
One of the latest in this ever-expanding category is coconut sugar, which is derived not from coconuts but from the flower-bud sap — nectar — of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). Although the terms coconut sugar, palm sugar and coconut palm sugar are often used interchangeably (and confusingly), palm sugar comes from the sap collected from different palm species.
Coconut palm sap, which is about 80 per cent water, is boiled to evaporate the liquid content, and the solids that remain are granulated to form coconut sugar. It looks and tastes much like brown sugar.
These wickedly good gluten-free coconut and raspberry brownies are sweetened with coconut sugar.
As far as coconut sugar’s chemical structure goes, it is around 70 percent sucrose — as is regular sugar. The remainder consists of individual molecules of glucose and fructose (the two sugars that make up sucrose). According to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute, in the Philippines, coconut sugar also contains minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium. But even though the mineral content of coconut sugar is marketed to the max, you’d have to consume far more than a teaspoon or two in your coffee or breakfast bowl to reap the same nutritional benefits you would get from a banana, say, or a serving of dark greens.
Another health claim made by manufacturers is about coconut sugar’s glycemic index — that is, the measure of how rapidly a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood sugar levels. Foods are ranked in comparison to a reference food (either glucose or white bread) and given a numerical value. A low GI comes in under 55; a moderate GI ranges from 56 to 69; and a high GI is any number over 70. (Aren’t you glad I look this stuff up so you don’t have to?)
Much has been made of coconut sugar’s low GI of 35, but as far as I can tell, that number is based primarily on a study of “10 Apparently Healthy Adults” in the Philippines, a country with a burgeoning coconut sugar industry. According to the University of Sydney, which publishes a very large, if not exhaustive, online database of the glycemic index and glycemic load values of various foods, coconut sugar has a GI of 54, which is at the top end of the low category. (White and brown sugars have a GI of around 64, putting them into the moderate category.)
Keep in mind that judging foods strictly by the glycemic index is not as straightforward as you may think.
“GI can also vary from person to person,” the American Diabetes Association explains. “It will change depending on how a food is cooked, and what the food is eaten with. In the case of coconut palm sugar, it is likely to be mixed or prepared with other ingredients that contain carbohydrates.”
The association goes on to say that it’s fine for people with diabetes to use coconut sugar as a sweetener, but they shouldn’t treat it any differently from regular sugar, as it provides the same amount of calories (15) and carbohydrates (4 grams) per teaspoon.
Diabetes Australia says in relation to the glycemic index that "it is recommended that people with diabetes have moderate amounts of carbohydrate and include high fibre foods that also have a low GI (not all high fibre foods have a low GI)... GI numbers are to be used as a guide only as individual foods do not have the same response in all people with diabetes."
So caveat emptor. Coconut sugar isn’t a magic bullet. It’s not a mineral supplement. It’s not a superfood. It’s not even a whole food. But it is a perfectly delicious sweetener with a deeper flavor than plain old table sugar, so enjoy it in small amounts. Or not.
Ever wanted to recreate the magic of crispy Asian pork belly at home? Keep reading! With tender meat, incredible crackling and a dipping sauce of coconut sugar, star anise, ginger and chilli, this recipe is the perfect centrepiece for a dinner party or Asian banquet.