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White sugar is processed and refined from sugarcane or beets, while coconut sugar is made from the sap of flower buds from the coconut palm tree.Jan Sandvik/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The question

Is coconut sugar healthier than white sugar?

The answer

Coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index, meaning it won’t spike your blood glucose

Coconut sugar (also called coconut palm sugar or coconut crystals) has become a popular alternative to white sugar due to its flavour and perceived health benefits. It’s also viewed as being more natural, or less highly processed, than table sugar.

What is coconut sugar?

Coconut sugar is made from the sap of flower buds from the coconut palm tree. (It's not made from coconuts as you might think.) The sap is boiled over moderate heat to evaporate most of its water content. The final product is coconut sugar, which is caramel-coloured and tastes similar to brown sugar.

White sugar is processed and refined from sugarcane or beets; during the refining process, minerals and natural compounds are removed.

How many calories is in coconut sugar?

Chemically speaking, much of coconut sugar is identical to white sugar (e.g. sucrose). Seventy to 79 per cent of coconut sugar is sucrose; the rest is made up of individual molecules of glucose and fructose (the two sugars than make up sucrose). When it comes to calories and carbohydrate content, there's no difference between coconut sugar and white sugar – both have 16 calories and 4 grams of sugar per teaspoon.

Are natural sugar substitutes better than white sugar?

Coconut sugar is often hyped as retaining many minerals from the sap, especially potassium. It's true that 100 grams (25 teaspoons!) of coconut sugar has 1,030 mg of potassium, nearly one-quarter of a day's worth. But don't count on getting much of anything except sugar in a teaspoon or two.

Which one has a lower glycemic index?

According to the Philippine Food and Nutrition Research Institute, coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index (35) than white sugar (60 to 65), meaning it doesn't spike your blood glucose and insulin like table sugar does. (Honey and agave syrup are low on the glycemic index scale too.) Glycemic index values of 55 or less are considered low; values of 70 or more are high.

How do I reduce the sugar in my cooking?

What are some other natural sugar alternatives?

Monk-fruit extract is a zero-calorie sweetener that comes from a melon-like fruit that’s grown in China and Thailand. The sweet juice is extracted from the fruit and processed into crystals. Monk-fruit sweetener is 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar, thanks to chemical compounds called mogrosides. These sweet-tasting compounds are not absorbed in the digestive tract, so they don’t contribute any calories to the diet.

Stevia sweeteners, 200 to 350 times sweeter than sugar, come from the stevia plant, which grows in South America. These zero-calorie sweeteners are made by extracting the plant’s sweet compounds, steviol glycosides, from the leaves of the plant and purifying them to remove bitter compounds. In Canada, purified steviol glycosides are sold as tabletop sweeteners and they’re also regulated as food additives.

Agave syrup comes from the same plant that produces tequila, the blue agave plant that grows primarily in Mexico. The core of the plant contains aguamiel, the sweet substance used to produce agave syrup. Agave syrup has either a dark or light amber colour and it’s slightly thinner in consistency than honey. It contains 60 calories per tablespoon – versus 48 for table sugar – but because it is about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, you can use less of it.

Bottom line

Nutritionally, there isn’t much of a difference between coconut sugar and table sugar. Both are added sugars we need to limit. Too much sugar of any type – white, brown, coconut, honey, maple syrup, agave nectar – raises blood triglycerides, lowers HDL (good) cholesterol and contributes excess calories to your diet. If you decide to make the switch to coconut sugar, use it sparingly.

Leslie Beck is a registered dietitian in Toronto.