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Hardly a week passes without my being asked about coconut. Coconut fat, coconut water, coconut yoghurt and lately coconut sugar. Is coconut sugar more natural and healthier? Is it a better-for-you alternative to brown sugar refined from cane? Is its GI lower than ordinary cane sugar? Is it really low in fructose? Here’s what I discovered.
How is coconut sugar made?
Coconut sugar (also known as coconut sap sugar, or coconut palm sugar, or evaporated coconut nectar) is produced from fresh sap oozing from the cut flower buds of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). It’s not from the coconut itself which is what I originally thought. The sap is collected or ‘tapped’ each day, boiled in large shallow pans to evaporate the water and then concentrated by drying to remove any residual moisture.
Don’t confuse coconut sugar with Palm Sugar (also known as jaggery, gur, gula melaka or gula jawa) which comes from the sugar date palm and is a popular sweetener in the tropics. Palm sugar is sold in rounded cakes, cylinders, blocks or large plastic or glass jars. Even when soft, it can be extremely dense and very sticky.
The differences are small, however, as both these sugars, despite their various names, are produced from the sap of a palm species which happens to be rich in natural sucrose, or sugar. You can read more about how coconut sugar is produced here.
The coconut palm – an amazing tree
Coconut palms are an impressive crop for struggling Third World tropical nations as they grow readily in backyards and are organic by default. According to Loving Earth, coconut palms win over cane plantations as they produce an average of 50 to 75 per cent more sugar per acre than sugar cane and use less than one-fifth of the soil nutrients.
They also help maintain the environment since they grow in diverse agro-ecosystems, restore damaged soils and require very little water. Over time they improve soil structure and fertility so allowing marginalised land to become greener jungle.
What’s more, coconut palms provide a multitude of usable goods, from food and coconut water to roofing and building material. The world's largest producers of coconuts are the Philippines and Indonesia which is where almost all the coconut sugar found in Australia comes from.
Nutritional profile of coconut sugar – the same as cane sugar
Coconut sugar is another brown-coloured, less refined, table sugar. It is 100 per cent carbohydrate with around 95 per cent being sugars (sucrose plus fructose and glucose, the two sugars that make up sucrose). As the coconut sap is boiled and evaporated to drive off its water, it’s essentially the same as evaporated cane juice which is sold under the trendy title of panela.
|Nutrient||% (g per 100g)|
|Water||0.5 - 0.8|
|Sucrose||78 - 89|
|Fructose||1.0 - 4.0|
|Glucose||2.0 - 3.0|
Source: Philippine National Standards of Coconut Sap Sugar 2010, Bureau of Agriculture and Fisheries, Produce Standards, Angelina A Bondad as at 7/11/2014.
From the figures I’ve been able to track down from the Philippines BAFPS, it’s mostly sucrose (range 78 to 89 per cent) which is the same basic compound found in white, brown or raw cane sugar. White sugar is 100 per cent sucrose while brown and raw are 96 to 99 per cent.
There are small quantities of fructose (less than 4 per cent) and glucose (less than 3 per cent) plus around 5 per cent inulin which has led some sugar marketing organisations to suggest it may be more healthy than sugar but I don’t buy this.
Is coconut sugar really low GI?
One of coconut sugar’s big claims to health is that it has a low GI (Glycemic Index) which is a measure of how quickly any sugar or starch can get broken down and converted to your own blood glucose. The lower the number, the slower the conversion, the better. White or brown sugar has a moderate GI of around 65 while fructose is low at 25. Remember high is any thing over 70, moderate falls between 56 and 69, while low is under 55.
Most websites and packs claim coconut sugar has a low GI of 35 but this is based on only ONE study using 10 volunteers done in the Philippines, a country with a lot of coconut to sell.
I find it strange that a sugar product with 80 per cent sucrose could come in so low in GI. It should be closer to 65 as for the cane sugars. Perhaps this is due to the inulin content, perhaps it’s due to the minerals, perhaps the form of coconut sugar consumed played a role in this low figure. I can’t find any other GI figures on the internet including the Australian comprehensive GI database at SUGIRS so there’s no way to verify this number. And there is no published paper to review. It has NOT been analysed by the reputable GI sites and I would love to see this reanalysed. [See Footnote at end]
You can read the pdf of the paper presented by scientist Dr Trinidad P Trinidad of the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) in the Philippines which I downloaded from the Philippines Coconut Authority and draw your own conclusions.
Is coconut sugar higher in minerals?
You’ll see many claims that coconut sugar is mineral-rich which means it’s high in zinc, magnesium, iron and other minerals. For instance, on the back of the Loving Earth pack, there’s this statement:
“Compared to brown sugar, coconut sugar has twice the iron, four times the magnesium and over 10 times the zinc.”
Or this from coconut sugar marketing websites such as Coconut Sugar Philippines.
“It has more potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, chlorine, sulphur and zinc than either brown or white cane sugar.”
However, nowhere is the original reference paper given nor is there any link to an analytical lab. What’s more they list the figures in mg per L of dry matter which is exaggerating the content ten-fold as standard analyses are always given in mg per 100mL as consumed (wet weight). Plus you can’t copy or print out the pages.
As I can’t find analyses in USDA or NUTTAB or other well recognised databases, I’m still sceptical. I can see how potassium and phosphorus could be high (from a plant) but I’m dubious about the iron, zinc and magnesium. I’ll wait for such grand figures to be confirmed.
Even if the levels are high, plant-based minerals are NOT well absorbed. Compare the iron you get from say red meat (20%) which is very bio-available to iron from spinach or grains (2%).
Finally as you’re only having 1 teaspoon or 4g (say in a cup of coffee), you’re not getting a lot of anything. Compare one banana 120g which gives you 422mg of potassium with one teaspoon 4g of coconut sugar with 200mg. There’s certainly some but it’s nowhere near as rich a source as are vegetables, fruit, juice, dried fruit or nuts.
So, it’s no multi-mineral super food. There’s SOME potassium and phosphorous with lesser amounts of magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron and copper and possibly other trace minerals.
How does coconut sugar compare with brown sugar?
Per 100g, coconut sugar (on the left) has 95 per cent sugars or 100 per cent carbs if you include the inulin. Brown sugar (on the right) has 95 per cent sugars and 95 per cent carbs.
Spoon for spoon, it ends up about the same. One level 4g teaspoon of coconut sugar has 63kJ (15 Cals) which is the same as regular cane sugar but it costs so much more!
How coconut sugar compares to brown (cane) sugar
|Sugar 100g||kJ||Carbs g||Sugars g||Free
|GI||K* mg||Ca† mg||Na** mg||$/100g|
ource: Brown sugar: NUTTAB. Coconut sugar: Loving EarthK = Potassium; Ca = Calcium; Na = Sodium;
Does it have fewer Calories and fewer sugars than brown or raw sugar?
Not really. This caramel-coloured sugar is still some 95 per cent sugars and packs 62 kJ or 15 Calories per teaspoon. It’s not sugar-free as stevia or aspartame are.
Many sites claim that coconut sugar is nutritionally superior and a better choice for people with diabetes. Most unlikely given it still adds sugar in the form of sucrose which the body has to handle, using insulin to metabolise it.
Does it have less fructose? Is it a low fructose sweetener?
The websites say it has only “5 per cent fructose”, but a low fructose content isn’t a deciding factor for me. It’s the total amount of sugars that counts in my eye. Remember that white cane sugar is 100 per cent sucrose with 0 fructose but this doesn’t make it healthy. Anyway sucrose gets broken into its two simple sugars which are glucose and fructose once you digest it so you end up with fructose anyway from coconut sugar.
Does it taste of coconut?
No. There is no distinct coconut aroma or taste as there is with coconut flakes or desiccated coconut. It has a pronounced caramel or toffee flavour which is very attractive and more interesting than brown sugar. Read my Review of Loving Earth Coconut Sugar here.
What can I use it in?
Anywhere that you’d use panela (evaporated cane sugar) or brown or Demerara sugar or rapadura. You can sweeten hot milk or teas with it, let it melt over porridge or hot flapjacks, make a nice crumble topping with oats and butter or use it to bake muffins or slices where brown sugar stars. It can’t replace white or caster sugar in delicate light cakes or desserts.
Check out the nutrition figures
Kilojoules, sugar content and GI rating for mainstream sugars with glucose and fructose as comparison
|Brown dark sugar||1630||96||65|
Source: Food manufacturers except for GI values from the website http://www.sugar-and-sweetener-guide.com. Note: low GI is anything less than 55 while Medium is 56 to 69 and High is 70 and over.
The bottom line
Coconut sugar is no super food! It isn’t sugar-free or healthier despite all the hype. If you need to lose weight or have diabetes, you can’t switch to coconut sugar and expect any improvements as it still adds sugars, carbs and kilojoules/Calories. It’s NOT a whole food – a fresh coconut is but not coconut sugar which is extracted from the sap.
Should you be using it instead of ordinary white sugar? Yes, where it works and if you like the taste. In place of brown or raw? No, it doesn’t offer enough for the cost. It has a few more minerals and inulin than refined brown sugar but not enough to get me excited. Sorry.
I put it in the same category as honey or agave syrup. It is slightly “less bad” than ordinary white sugar, but definitely not something special you should eat every day. As with all sugars, use it sparingly.
If you’re interested to know more about sugars, check out these posts on the Foodwatch website:
- Honey - is it healthier than sugar?
- Q. Is sugar absorbed more rapidly than starchy foods?
- 7 types of sugar - which is healthier?
- Are syrups better for you than sugar?
- Sugar - are you sweet enough?
Footnote: the SUGIRS service at the University of Sydney recently tested the GI of coconut sugar and reported it to be 54 which means it just squeaks into the Low category although 54 is not as low as legumes or yoghurt. So it's not a low of 35 as claimed. The figure of 54 is lowish due to the 'impurities' (possibly minerals) that lower the GI in other carbohydrates.