Coconut sugar is a naturally-derived sugar substitute made from coconut sap. It looks like brown sugar and contains approximately 70-80% sucrose.
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Like Stevia, Monk Fruit, and a host of other natural sugar substitutes, coconut sugar is a naturally-derived sugar alternative made from coconut sap. If you want to read more about Stevia and Monk Fruit, check out our “Stevia or Mork Fruit” article. Coconut sugar is processed from coconut palm sap and looks like brown sugar. Coconut sugar contains approximately 70-80% sucrose and undergoes less processing than white sugar, retaining more nutrients (1). For those and many other reasons, it is considered a healthier choice than white table sugar. That said, this is still a form of pure sugar, and in terms of calories and blood glucose, it should be treated the same as white table sugar.
This alternative sugar source is made by evaporating coconut palm sap until it reaches a crystalline form. Because coconut sap is primarily sucrose, it becomes very sticky as it dries, making the process of turning it into crystals fairly difficult (2). Different vacuum drying methods and other processing methods are still being tested to optimize this process (3). Coconut trees grow in tropical regions such as South Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia. Coconut sugar traditionally is heated to 100-120°C in an open pan for 3-5 hours, then harvested (4). However, this high heat for an extended period can reduce the nutritional content. A recent study found that rotary evaporation (putting the coconut palm sap in a round container and heating it while turning to keep the heating even) resulted in the best conservation of nutrients (4). However, this method is not currently used because it is expensive, requires equipment, and is a bit more labor-intensive.
We’re about to go through all of the wonderful health benefits that coconut sugar has and white table sugar lacks. But, one important thing to remember is that both are still forms of sugar. Coconut sugar contains approximately 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrates per teaspoon, making it roughly equivalent to white sugar (5). You should be aware of your sugar intake and limit it as much as possible. Coconut sugar and white table sugar will both spike your blood glucose levels, and while coconut sugar has some nutrients, it is not healthy food. Moderation is the key.
This has been one of the biggest selling features of coconut water as a sport-recovery drink (6). However, electrolytes are also present in coconut sugar after processing (though slightly less than unprocessed coconut water). Different ages and varieties of coconuts yielded different levels of electrolytes, including potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, and many others. A study examining this very question found that mature coconuts have decent levels of electrolytes and can be considered a good supplementary source (7).
Electrolytes are important for us because they’re required for nerve and muscle maintenance. We get most of our electrolytes from what we eat and drink, and an imbalance can lead to disease and nerve/muscle problems. As a few examples, sodium is an electrolyte normally regulated by our kidneys. It is needed for maintaining extracellular fluid volume (picture an over- or under-inflated water bed, and you can see why this might be a problem if it goes haywire) and regulating active transport (how many of our cells bring needed molecules in and out). Potassium is another electrolyte that is critical for our overall body functioning. When we get too much or too little potassium, the risk of cardiac arrhythmias (when your heart is beating at the wrong speed) increases. Low potassium levels can result in weakness, fatigue, muscle spasms, cramps, or weakness (8).
One of the biggest benefits of coconut sugar is its much lower glycemic index than white table sugar. Glycemic index is a measure given to foods to show how they will affect your blood glucose level. Foods high in processed sugar (like fruit and sweets) have a very high glycemic index, meaning they release those sugars quickly into your blood. Low glycemic index foods release sugars more slowly, which gives you a longer-lasting energy burst without a rapid blood glucose spike and insulin-release, forcing a blood glucose crash (9). Coconut sugar has a glycemic index of 36, while the white table sugar of 60 (10). This means that while both are types of sugar and should be counted in your diet as such, the resulting spike of your blood glucose level may be less severe with coconut sugar than white sugar. Use sugar of any kind sparingly, but coconut sugar may be a better choice if you’re going to have something sweet and want less of a blood glucose spike and crash after you eat.
As veganism and a focus on animal cruelty protection has continued to gain popularity, concerns about hidden animal products in our food has also increased. Bone char has traditionally been used to process sugar and is made from charred bones of cattle. Traditional white and brown sugars and processed with bone char to filter the crystalline product, making that soft, crystal-formed sugar that we love (11). It can be difficult to determine which sugars have bone char and which do not, as each plant and country often has a different way of processing sugar, and that may or may not include the use of bone char (12).
The sap and processed sugar from coconut palms are high in several minerals, including magnesium, sodium, potassium, and iron (13). We’ve already discussed the importance of sodium and potassium as electrolytes, but magnesium and iron are vital, too. Magnesium is needed to regulate muscle and nerve function and blood sugar levels. It is also important for blood pressure maintenance and the formation of bone, protein, and DNA (14). Iron is required for hemoglobin generation (that’s the protein in red blood cells that carries fresh oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our body), and making many of the hormones we rely on to run our body every day (15).
Coconut sap is also a great source of vitamin C, B1, and B3 (it also includes trace amounts of vitamin B3, B4, B2, and B10) (13). Check out the difference between “Fat- and Water- Soluble Vitamins.” Coconut contains on average about 2mg of vitamin C per cup, meaning you’d need to eat 15 cups of raw coconut a day to get all of your vitamin C from this source (16). Given that coconut sap is also highly heat-processed to make coconut sugar, the vitamin C levels are low enough that a teaspoon of coconut sugar in your coffee won’t add much. But consider this a suggestion to add coconut products (including sugar, water, and shaved coconut) to your diet now and then to enrich your vitamin intake. Vitamin B1 (also called thiamine) can prevent complications in the nervous system, brain, muscles, heart, and stomach/intestines. It can prevent multiple disorders and regulates the flow of electrolytes into and out of muscle and nerve cells (17). Vitamin B3 (also called niacin) is vital for cholesterol control (keeping the bad cholesterol low and increasing our good cholesterol levels) (18). If you take cholesterol-related drugs, check out the “Foods to Avoid When Taking Statins.”
Antioxidants protect against disease. This is because they are “free oxygen radical scavengers.” Free oxygen radicals are a by-product of our metabolism and can go on to damage DNA, cause cancer, and induce disease (19). Antioxidants can take out these radicals before they cause damage, turning them into harmless molecules. Coconut sap is particularly high in polyphenols, one type of antioxidant (20). It is unclear how many of these antioxidants stay intact after high-heat processing of the sap into coconut sugar, though. Some studies have looked into how different modes of processing affect the antioxidant activity and found that rotary evaporation methods (which we’ve already talked about) were the best method for preserving antioxidant content (21).
Coconuts are high in a starchy substance that is classified as a type of dietary fiber called inulin (22). Inulin is used as a medication for high cholesterol, weight loss, constipation, diarrhea, and diabetes (23). Inulin has a prebiotic effect (boosting the growth of healthy bacteria in our digestive system) and is a great addition to improve your digestive and gut health (24). Other foods can function as prebiotics, read the “13 Best Prebiotic Food to Eat.” It is unclear whether this fiber survives processing from fruit to sap to sugar, but it is another reason why coconuts should be an addition to your diet.
It’s a good idea to replace your table sugar with coconut sugar, purely because of the number of vitamins and minerals coconut sugar has because it is less processed than white table sugar. However, this is still a form of sugar that should be limited in your diet, despite its low glycemic index. Coconut sugar is a sweet addition to a healthy diet. In general, coconuts can be part of a healthy diet in the form of water, sugar, or other coconut products, replenishing your electrolytes, spiking your blood sugar less severely than white table sugar, and containing several micronutrients that our body needs to run smoothly. Next time you reach for some white table sugar for your coffee, consider trying coconut sugar instead of a healthier addition to your daily caffeine boost.
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