Coconut palm sugar is being touted as the “best new sugar alternative.” This tropical sweetener has made its way from Southeast Asia to the West, with claims that it is full of nutrients and that it can even help you lose weight. It’s said to be good for people with diabetes. Sound familiar? Just a few years ago it was agave, from Mexico, that was the latest and greatest new sweetener.
A traditional sweetener in the Philippines, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries, coconut palm sugar (also called coconut or coco sugar) is made from the nectar of the flowering buds of the coconut tree (cocos nucifera), which otherwise would develop into coconuts. Other than heating the sap to evaporate the water, it undergoes no further processing and has no additives.
Proponents claim that coconut sugar is “highly nutritious,” with significantly more magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium, vitamin C, and other nutrients than refined white sugar (from sugar cane or beets). But no sugar is a good source of nutrients in the amounts typically consumed. For example, according to one source, coconut sugar has 29 milligrams of magnesium per 100 grams, which works out to be about 1 milligram per teaspoon. You’d have to eat about 400 teaspoons to meet the Daily Value for this mineral.
On his TV show, Dr. Oz claimed that switching to coconut sugar could help prevent blood sugar “crashes” and help in weight loss because it has a low glycemic index (GI). Many websites make similar claims. But like regular sugar, coconut sugar is mostly sucrose and has the same calorie and carbohydrate content. Moreover, the notion that this sugar has a low GI is based on a single undated report, which describes an unpublished study from the Philippines involving 10 people. We could find no published studies to corroborate this—or any showing that coconut sugar helps in weight control or is safe for people with diabetes. Don’t believe any of the other health claims, either—that because coconut sugar has a low GI, it may protect against cancer, heart disease, and obesity. Even if it has a low GI, what effect this has on health is itself debatable.
Here’s more sour news: Increased demand for coconut sugar in the West is diverting production away from other coconut products, such as coconut oil, coconut milk, and coconut flour, and there is concern that this will decrease supply and thus drive up prices of those commodities. People in Asia who rely heavily on such coconut staples would be most affected financially.
Bottom line: No sugars, even ones that sound more natural, are “health foods.” All basically provide “empty” calories and should be consumed in limited amounts. Still, if you use sugar, coconut sugar is a reasonable alternative—except for its price (about $4 to $12 a pound, with one product costing $30 a pound). It’s less sweet and has a more caramel taste, and it can be used in beverages and in baking and cooking.