Is Coconut Sugar a Healthier Choice?

Q. Makers of coconut sugar claim that it has a low glycemic index and is high in potassium and some other minerals.  Would using coconut sugar make my cookies the healthiest on the block?

A. Replacing cane sugar with coconut sugar might make your cookies a little higher in potassium.  And to the extent that coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than regular sugar, the cookies might not cause quite as high a bump in blood sugar–although I’m sure it would still be significant.

But here’s the thing: The fact that coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index is a tip-off that it has a high fructose ratio.  (Same is true of agave nectar.)  There’s been a lot of buzz about fructose lately: how fructose doesn’t stimulate the release of hormones that signal satiety or fullness, leading to over-consumption and how over-consumption of fructose triggers fat storage or even liver damage.  Most of the hysteria, of course, has been focused on high fructose corn syrup. Ironically, high fructose corn syrup is a lot lower in fructose than “healthy” sweeteners like coconut sugar and agave nectar.

Here’s what often gets lost in the hub-bub: The real problem here is not with fructose (or even sugar) but excessive consumption!   In other words, all concentrated sweeteners–cane sugar, corn syrup, maple syrup, agave nectar, molasses, honey, coconut sugar, palm sugar, date sugar, and fruit juice concentrate–should be consumed in moderation.  Furthermore, none of these sweeteners–including the dreaded high fructose corn syrup–would be that big a problem if consumed in small amounts.

The first order of business is to reduce added sugar consumption to reasonable levels. (Five to ten% of total calories is a reasonable goal.) Then, if the idea of a more natural sweetener, or a few extra milligrams of potassium, turns you on, go for it!

Have a nutrition question for Monica? Post it here!

Related podcasts:

Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Worse than Sugar?

Is Natural Sugar Better For You?

How to Reduce Your Added Sugar Intake

25 thoughts on “Is Coconut Sugar a Healthier Choice?

  1. Finally, some sane words about sugar! I’ve viewed the various “low-GI” claims for coconut/palm sugar with skepticism, too. I’ve known for some time that concentrated or continual high intake of fructose is a huge worry in terms of metabolic effects.

    That said, I’m not at all reassured that coconut sugar is “just sucrose”, as sucrose (whether from cane sugar, beet sugar, or coconut/palm sugar) is a disaccharide made of a molecule of glucose and a molecule of fructose (50% glucose/50% fructose), which to me, is a big dose of fructose if a lot of sucrose (from any source) is consumed. I do think coconut sugar has a great “brown sugar” taste, so I have some in my cupboard, but I use it very sparingly and infrequently, i.e., not on a daily, or even weekly basis.

    Your point about the total amount of sugars (from all sources) is a very important one that IMO, most people aren’t willing to embrace. The vast majority of Americans, and Westerners in general, simply consume too much sugar from all sources, hence the spectacular rates of metabolic conditions and diseases and associated conditions (high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers, Alzheimer’s, PCOS, infertility, obesity, and so on) in many Western nations (and increasingly, in developing nations which abandon their traditional diets and adopt our industrial way of eating). Folks who overindulge in the latest “healthy” sugar on the market because it has a few more minerals or a low GI index are missing the bigger point – consuming a lot of any sugar over a lifetime damages the body’s cells and metabolism. The effects are speeding up now, too, with metabolic conditions affecting not only younger and younger adults, but now teens and children, probably because of epigenetic effects in the womb as well as the sugar-laden food supply that greets them at birth. Most people have no idea how much “a lot” of sugar really is , either, and because it’s already added to many of the convenience and packaged foods they consume, they tend to underestimate their own sugar intake and that of their family members. We’d all be a LOT healthier if we went back to the low consumption rates during sugar rationing in WWII, though I try to keep my own family’s sugar intake to even lower than that (we focus mostly on “paleo-style” eating and limit or avoid foods that entered the food supply more recently – namely wheat & other grains, veg oils, and concentrated sugars).

    Do you have any information about brown rice syrup? As far as I can tell, it appears to be rice starch that is enzymatically reduced with amylase into glucose and maltose (BRS is significantly less sweet than sucrose or fructose). Used *very* sparingly, brown rice syrup appears to me to be a “somewhat safer” sweetener (if there is such a thing) than the concentrated sugar products that contain significant amounts of fructose, as glucose is less likely to cause the metabolic problems that fructose can cause (assuming healthy glucose metabolism), though I’m ready to amend that view if I learn more.

    Please note I said very sparing use of BRS. I am quite mindful of BRS’s concentrated glucose content, as I have impaired glucose tolerance/prediabetes and must monitor my BG and sugar/starch intake to maintain normal BG levels.

    1. Anna, I’m with you on your analysis. Thanks for delivering it so well! We’re on a zero added sugar and low carb diet due to cancer. Our son is fighting brain cancer and we’ve used nutrition to combat the disease. Research is now showing that even cancer can be considered a metabolic disease. In any case, sugars are sugars, regardless of the source, as you point out. We only use stevia and erythritol. There have been some amazing studies on erythritol (a sugar alcohol, derived from fermenting glucose) that show it to be an antioxidant and zero glycemic (never signals to the pancreas to release insulin and is therefore not absorbed into our cells as glucose is). Steviol, the sweet agent in Stevia, actually binds to glucose and escorts out of the body. Mulberry leaf does something similar. Andrew Weil now endorses erythritol as his sweetener of choice. It’s the only thing we’ll use and our son is thriving against cancer. We do eat whole fruits because of the fiber content. I thought this info may interest you since you see to be on it! 🙂

  2. http://bigtreefarms.com/index.php/page/faqs

    On the page above you will read about why and how coconut sugar (coconut flower blossom nectar) is low glycemic. There is a plethora of independent scientific data on coconut flower blossom out there for all who take the time to read about it.

    We have numerous testimonials from diabetics who use this product daily with no issues.

  3. People be careful where you get your information… this article seems to have intent on making HFCS(High Fructose Corn Syrup) just as good as Sugar and coconut sugar. Seems to me that the focus is all wrong. When you talk about GI then you can bring in HFCS and regular sugar. I think the focus should be on where your food comes from. Coconut sugar comes from Coconut. Period. That simple fact makes it better. Table sugar is a chemical and is processed immensely. Now HFCS is just chemicals that’s processed even more and has been known to contain mercury and other contaminants and by products.

    So, please watch for the trickery that is often used in the disguise of providing you information. Coconut sugar is from Coconut and is natural and you body probably have a much easier time recognizing it and processing it…. as opposed to the other chemicals they want to compare it to. Next they’ll say Aspartame is better than them all because it has fewer calories. SMH.

  4. There is a big problem with Coconut Sugar. The harvesting practice is unsustainable. Once the flowers are cut off the tree to harvest the nectar, the tree no longer produces coconuts, what then? The price of coconut oil and coconut products are already through the roof, what would happen if most of the crop of trees responsible for filling the demand to the world were destroyed?

    1. Lucy, think about this. The coconut is a fruit tree. It produces about 50 coconuts per year. It is deceitful to say that it no longer produces coconuts once they harvest the nectar. It won’t produce a coconut from that particular blossom, but if the farmer chooses to let these blossoms grow into a coconut they can. It does NOT destroy the coconut tree, nor does it hurt the tree.

  5. We just bought some coconut sugar, and made peanut butter cookies with it. (also with coconut flour, not wheat flour) and I found that it tasted absolutely delicious, much better than with cane sugar,, Strangely, I was content to eat just one. I didn’t feel the need to eat a dozen of them until I felt nauseous like is normally the case with any cookies. To me, that makes it a safer(and tastier) sweetener.

    1. Wow, that’s what I was wondering, I was looking for a sugar that would not leave me craving more. Thanks for the input allie, I think I’ll give it a try…

  6. You should probably do some more research. Coconut nectar is actually closer to 10% fructose so the comparison with hfcs is really stretching…

  7. I agree with Jenny above! Your article is out of date and desperately needs updating based on current studies. It is improper to feed the public incorrect health info! Sounds like your research was funding by the corn growers (HFCS) industry 🙁 Maybe you also do not know that your TOTAL intake (from fruits, sweeteners, etc) should be limited to about 30 grams / day or less.

    The fact is that coconut IS the only sugar that has a lower than even she indicated at 3-5% fructose dep0ending on the source. It has a low GI 35-38 slow release due to a built-in pre-biotic fiber called inulin. You can bring this GI lower (as I do) by adding additional virtually tasteless inulin to it.

    Having specialized in nutrition for Huntington’s Disease and similar dementia, nit has been learned that many of these illnesses it due to TO LITTLE GLUCOSE GETTING TO THE BRAIN (due to high triglycerides blocking the BBB). By keeping to a low bad carb (wheat, corn, fructose, etc) diet you can consume and allow the brain needed sugar glucose too cross the BBB.

    Maybe you are not aware the Alzheimer’s has been refereed to by many doctors as Diabetes type 3, The total lack of glucose feeding the brain. With out this yo have to rely on keytones to feed the brain with can also be obtained from the coconut oil. The perfectly fed brain will have an abundance of both glucose AND keytones. This would reduce dementia by 90%.

    Due to all the health benefits an d sustaining life on desert islands, It has been referred to as THE TREE OF LIFE! Dr Pat Robinson on the 700 club even feels it may be the original tree of life that has been hidden from us due to ignorance.

    And you should also not be so quick to refer to FDA as what is best for nutrition! THEY WERE RECENTLY SUED BY THE CDC due to incorrect info causing the rise in diabetes and obesity. They went by what was best for industry’s financial health rather than what was best for the consumers’ health.

    I guess you are still old school as far as natural cholesterol and naturally derived saturated fats in fruits and veggies are also bad? Or that the medium chain triglycerides in coconut oil is also bad?

    Things have changed GREATLY since yo got out of school … keep up with the research!

    1. Thanks so much for your comments! Can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading them.

      I’m always grateful for the opportunity to learn from my readers. And just in case the feeling is mutual, a few responses to your post.

      You’re absolutely right that adding fiber to any sugar will effectively lower the glycemic index. If coconut sugar provided substantial amounts of inulin, we would expect to see two things: a signficant fiber content and <4 kcal/g. However, the commercial products I have evaluated (100% organic coconut sugar) have 0g of fiber and 4kcal per gram. So, it would not appear that significant amounts of inulin are present.

      As for the Glycemic Index of coconut sugar, subsequent tests have challenged the validity of the single GI study widely promoted by the Philippine Coconut Authority (which, it could be argued, is not a completely unbiased source). Please see my colleague Darya Pino's excellent summary: http://summertomato.com/is-coconut-palm-sugar-a-healthy-sugar-substitute/

      In your post, you also make a number of guesses or assumptions about my positions on various matters. As I have been at this for a while, I have thousands of pages of content and I realize that much material might be difficult to examine in detail. So, in case it is of interest, here are a few clarifications.

      “sounds like your research is funded by the corn growers industry” I have no ties to the corn growers or HFCS industry.

      “maybe you also do not know that your TOTAL intake (from fruits, sweeteners, etc) should be limited to about 30 grams / day or less.” Actually, it’s one of my most oft-repeated positions: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/healthy-eating/how-to-reduce-your-added-sugar-intake

      “I guess you are still old school as far as natural cholesterol and naturally derived saturated fats in fruits and veggies are also bad?”
      Actually, fruits and vegetables do not contain cholesterol, as it is, by definition, a zoosterol (animal derived sterol). Either way, however, I think we have little to fear from dietary cholesterol. And here are a few thoughts on saturated fat from vegetable sources:http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/healthy-eating/know-your-nutrients/ask-the-diva-does-it-matter-where-saturated-fat

      “Or that the medium chain triglycerides in coconut oil is also bad?”
      Actually, I use coconut oil myself. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/healthy-eating/what-are-the-benefits-of-coconut-oil
      And here’s an episode I dedicated to benefits of MCTs http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/healthy-eating/what-are-mcts

      Hope that gives you a better orientation to my views–which are always open to re-evaluation, pending new evidence. Thanks for sharing yours.

      1. Boom. [drops the mic]…

        So another 3 years passes.
        What’s everyone’s view on Coconut Sugar / Coconut Blossom Nectar nowadays?

        1. I have no idea if anyone is still reading this (my guess is not), but I’m going to chime in anyway. The only way to stop eating added sweeteners is to stop eating added sweeteners. That doesn’t mean cut down. That doesn’t mean limiting. That means 100% stopping without exceptions. And it means sugar, corn syrup, honey, brown rice syrup, fruit juice, dried fruit and super sweet fruits for most people, xylitol, agave, coconut nectar, stevia, natural, unnatural, caloric, non-caloric, all of it!! If you’re added it to food or drink and it’s meant to make it taste sweeter, then it must be 100% dropped with absolutely NO EXCEPTIONS. This is not going to be a popular answer, but it’s the only way out of the endless cycle. I’m not going to pretend that I succeed at this all the time, but it’s the only way to go.

    2. The idea of Type III diabetes and brain disease relates to high carb consumption, not low. Your body produces sufficient glucose from your liver at all times to supply your red blood cells and parts if the brain. Dietary intake of sugars and high-carb foods (some argue most carbohydrates) is not necessary at all, coconut or otherwise.

  8. Monica I commend you for your cordial response to unfounded attacks. I can never understand why the blog format somehow gives people the impression that rude, poorly argued, and inflammatory responses are somehow okay. It also amazes me to see what lengths people will go to in defense of sugar. It shows the depths of our societal addiction to absunbstance that has become too common and accepted in everyday life. I know we want so much to find magic and exotic sugars, but they don’t exist. Glucose, fructose, sucrose (fructose and glucose) are ALL implicated in our nation’s largest health challenges, namely obesity, diabetes, brain disease, and yes, even cancer. I am in ketosis, consuming at most 35g of total carbohydrate per day. I FEEL a good if it’s too high in sugar. It’s awful. But my addiction is broken! And my son is fighting cancer with the most evidenced-based complementary cancer therapy known to us. It’s not magic, it’s metabolism. 🙂

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