Food blogger Loni Jane’s son digs into a bowl of bananas with coconut sugar and cinnamon. (Photo: Instagram.com/LoniJane)
It’s hard to find a food as demonized as sugar. It’s tied to everything from heart disease and high blood pressure to obesity — which is why it’s surprising to find coconut sugar taking over the baking aisle at healthy grocery stores and gracing oatmeal and smoothie bowls. But is coconut sugar really any different from regular sugar? And do the benefits outweigh the fact that it is, still, sugar? Yahoo Health took a look.
What is coconut sugar?
Unlike coconut oil, water, or milk, coconut sugar doesn’t come from the coconut itself. It’s really the boiled, dehydrated sap from the coconut palm. That alone upends claims that coconut sugar is unprocessed — it isn’t stripped of any nutrients and it doesn’t go through a heavy refining process like table sugar does, but it does undergo processing that turns the thick, sticky sap into a sweet, dry sugar. Some may be familiar with coconut nectar, a syrupy liquid made by boiling coconut palm sap. The nectar is slightly less processed, though nutritionally it’s almost identical to coconut sugar.
A one-teaspoon serving of coconut sugar clocks in at 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrates, just like regular table sugar.
What makes it different from other sugars?
While table sugar is pretty devoid of any micronutrients, “coconut sugar contains minerals such as iron, potassium, magnesium, and zinc, along with antioxidants,” explains nutritionist Allyn Mahowald, RD, of the Mayo Clinic. Coconut sugar is also rich in inulin, a type of fiber that has prebiotic effects, meaning it can help feed the healthy bacteria that help your body digest the food you eat.
Inulin can also slow the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream, Mahowald tells Yahoo Health, which prevents the sugar high — and subsequent crash — that comes from typical sweeteners like table sugar and high fructose corn syrup. “Coconut sugar is said to be lower on the glycemic index at 35, compared to table sugar, [which measures] between 58 and 65, likely because it contains inulin,” she says.
JJ Virgin, CNS, author of Sugar Impact Diet, sees coconut sugar as a step up from other sweeteners, but not the superfood some make it out to be. “Compared with table and brown sugars, coconut sugar has impressive amounts of nutrients like zinc and iron, as well as antioxidants,” she tells Yahoo Health. “Still, about 78 percent — over three-fourths — of coconut sugar is actually table sugar [sucrose].”
Plus, Mahowald points out, a teaspoon serving won’t exactly leave you with heaps of nutrients. “You would have to eat a large serving of coconut sugar to reap the benefits,” she explains.
Why is it popping up in recipes?
For one, coconut sugar is one of the only “healthy” dry sugars on the market. Unlike maple syrup or brown rice syrup, it works in recipes that call for white or brown sugar. That’s why Sarah Britton, author of the My New Roots blog and upcoming book, reaches for coconut sugar. “I choose coconut sugar over other sweeteners because you can substitute it one to one in any recipe where you use white sugar. It’s a lot more convenient than substituting with a liquid sweetener because you don’t need to change dry to wet ingredient ratios,” she tells Yahoo Health.
Sarah Britton’s Chocolate Chunk Nut Butter Blondies use coconut sugar. (Photo: Instagram.com/MyNewRoots)
“I first found out about coconut sugar about two or three years ago. Since then, it has been my go-to dry sweetener in all my recipes,” Britton says. One of those recipes is “Chocolate Chunk Nut Butter Blondies,” which call for coconut sugar as the sweetener.
But is baking with coconut sugar, rather than regular white sugar, any healthier?
Virgin puts it like this: “A lower glycemic index coupled with slightly lower amounts of fructose makes coconut sugar, like honey, a slightly better alternative to table sugar and an acceptable, occasional ‘proceed with caution’ sweetener,” she says. But “it’s still sugar, so treat accordingly.”
Plus, echoes Mahowald, “it may have a lower impact on blood sugar, but limited research has been done to be able to provide any clear recommendations.”
When it comes to whether coconut sugar has a place in your pantry, the experts agree: Coconut sugar is a fine substitute for white sugar, but don’t go adding it into your diet where sugar wasn’t before. As pretty as coconut sugar looks sprinkled over bowls of bananas or oatmeal, you’re only increasing the sugar load on your body.
If it’s the minerals you’re after, try getting them through lower-sugar foods like pumpkin seeds or leafy greens. If you like the sweetness it provides, try swapping in fruits like berries or mango instead. And if nothing else, just bear in mind that as new and shiny as coconut sugar may be, it’s still sugar. Remember the great agave nectar rush of five years back? Yeah. Proceed with caution, everyone.