No doubt you've heard lots of buzz about sugar alternatives, even if you're not cutting back on the refined stuff for medical or dietary reasons. Lots of alternatives have been around for decades, each with their own health challenges, and more recently less-processed raw sugars have come into popularity.
Large amounts of refined sugar — especially those found in sugary beverages — has consistently been linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, excess belly fat, heart disease, certain types of cancer and a number of other health issues. Problem is, it's hidden in so many seemingly unsuspecting foods — think jarred tomato sauce and yogurt — that you really have to read labels to look for it.
What This Nut Sugar Is Not
Now there's coconut sugar and some people might think it could be the best option out there. But is it?
First, here's what it is: Coconut sugar is a palm sugar produced from the sap of the flower bud of the coconut palm, not from the coconut itself. It's made by boiling the flower's sap until it thickens and solidifies.
You can substitute it for regular white or brown sugar 1:1 in recipes, just beware that it may change the flavor and color of your foods.
Contrary to where you think this might be going, coconut sugar is not the best alternative if you're looking to avoid calories. One teaspoon contains 18 calories, which isn't much less than refined white sugar, which has 20 calories in 1 teaspoon.
As far as coconut sugar's glycemic load — that's how drastically a food makes your blood sugar rise and particularly important for someone who has diabetes — it's not so great compared to white sugar either. Coconut sugar can range between 50 and 54; that's roughly the same as that of refined white sugar, although depending on the manufacturer, it could be as low as 34.
And despite many coconut sugar manufacturers claiming the product is fructose free, it's definitely not. In fact, it typically has similar amounts of fructose as table sugar. That's because it's usually made with 70 to 80 percent sucrose and sucrose is half fructose.
What all of this means is eating coconut sugar has a lot of bad health consequences as eating any added sugar in excess.
Health Benefits or Bust?
The main distinction between table and coconut sugar is that coconut sugar does retain some of the nutrients found in the coconut palm. Most notably are iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, as well as some short-chain fatty acids like polyphenols and antioxidants. It also has inulin, a fiber that may slow glucose absorption.
However, there's not enough of these nutrients in a serving to provide significant benefit when considering the amount of glucose, calories and GI load. If you want natural sweeteners with lower calories and GI – as in zero – those made from monk fruit, or the stevia plant are better options.
If you're vegan and have less concern about the similarities to white sugar, it's important to note one big difference is that coconut sugar is vegan-friendly.