King of Alternative Sweeteners: Does Coconut Sugar Deserve Its Crown?

coconut sugar

If the food industry knows one thing about consumers, it’s this: We love sugar. And we’ll do anything to get our sweet fix. From the 1965 synthesis of aspartame, sold then as NutraSweet, we have continued through Splenda, a “made from real sugar” substitute made of sucralose, to more natural sugar replacements like maple and agave syrup. Today’s star is coconut sugar. But does it deserve all the hype?

Here are three things we’ve heard about coconut sugar and the truth behind the blanket statement. You make up your mind.

Coconut Sugar is All-Natural

Whoa, Nelly! If you’ve been reading OA for a while, you know that “natural” doesn’t really mean all that much — we have to demand more from our labels. This healthy skepticism in mind, is there any truth to this statement?

Coconut sugar is minimally processed, as opposed to artificial sweeteners that need to be manufactured in a lab, which is a good thing. Coconut sugar includes just one ingredient, and the fewer ingredients in a food, the easier it is to know exactly what you’re eating.

That being said, it’s just as processed as regular raw cane sugar is, with almost the same steps being used to manufacture it. One exception is low-temperature processed coconut sugar, which is not the norm but is available, which keeps the natural enzymes of coconut sugar in tact.

The Bottom Line: Choose low-temperature processed coconut sugar, or you’re not doing much better than cane sugar as far as processing.

Coconut Sugar Has a Low Glycemic Index

One major tick in the pro column for coconut sugar has been its low glycemic index as compared with sugar. Whereas the glycemic index of table sugar is 84, that of coconut sugar is only 54. Many people conclude that low GI coconut sugar must therefore be a much better choice than table sugar and, understandably, stock up on the new kid on the block.

What does need to be considered, however, is that glycemic index only measures the effects of glucose on the blood, and glucose is not the only sugar molecule at the party. While coconut sugar does have a comparatively low amount of glucose, it is actually quite high in fructose (but we’ll get to that in a second).

The bottom line here is that while glycemic index is a great way to understand which foods to eat when, eating low GI foods is not enough. Foods that are high in carbohydrates but have a low GI remain foods to be eaten in moderation, and coconut sugar is one of these.

The Bottom Line: The American Diabetes Association says it best, in this case: “It is okay for people with diabetes to use coconut palm sugar as a sweetener, but they should not treat it any differently than regular sugar.” That follows for those of us without diabetes as well.

Coconut Sugar is Low in Fructose

Now let’s get back to the fructose question. Many distributors of coconut sugar have highlighted its comparatively low fructose content as compared to, for example, agave. Agave contains about 85 percent fructose (depending on how it is processed), which recently sent it careening from the place of pride as the sugar du jour.

But why do we care so much about fructose? One good reason is that, as opposed to glucose, fructose is not required by the body. It was eaten seasonally by our ancestors, when in season, but glucose has always been consumed and is even produced by the body, as a quick store of energy. An overload of fructose can be detrimental to our health, thus the noise and concern over high-fructose corn syrup and, subsequently, other fructose syrups like agave.

Luckily, coconut sugar steers us away from that issue… right?

Not exactly. Coconut sugar manufacturers found themselves a lovely little loophole by citing the sugar molecules in the product in three different groups: sucrose, glucose and fructose. In this way, they were able to show that coconut sugar contains a paltry 1-4 percent fructose — not bad!

What they neglected to say is that sucrose isn’t actually an independent molecule, like glucose and fructose. Sucrose is composed of both glucose and fructose and, when consumed, is broken down by the body using the beta-fructosidae enzyme. The glucose in the compound is used immediately, forcing the body to produce insulin. If excess energy is needed, the body will tap into the fructose; if not, this energy gets stored in the body.

In other words, sucrose is a double-whammy of glucose and fructose, no better than either one. And since coconut sugar is anywhere from 78-89 percent sucrose, we’re looking at closer to 40 percent fructose, a big step up from the promised 1-4 percent.

The Bottom Line: Sucrose is just as dangerous as fructose, and coconut sugar has sucrose in spades.

Before you throw out all your coconut sugar, however, bear a few things in mind. If you are going to use a sweetener, coconut sugar is still a fairly worthwhile choice. It’s higher in minerals and fiber than many other sugars and sweeteners, which you can’t say for table sugar, and it is a sustainable choice, which we always love.

The main takeaway from this? We’ll always crave sugar, but unfortunately (and unsurprisingly!) there’s no magic formula for a healthy sugar you can consume with reckless abandon. Choose the sugar that best suits your tastes, and then use it — sparingly — alongside the rest of your organic ingredients for balanced and healthy meals.

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Coconut sugar image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco