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Coconut sugar: Is it healthier than white sugar, or just hype?

The question: What is coconut sugar? Is it a better choice than white sugar?

The answer: 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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct; lesliebeck.com.

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