If you try to maintain a nutritious diet, you’ll probably have noticed coconut sugar appearing in more and more health food products. Coconut sugar is a whole-food ingredient. It is derived from the palms of coconut trees (not to be confused with palm sugar, which is derived from the palms of the sugar palm tree), and probably sounds like a wholesome ingredient. But cane sugar, derived from sugar cane, is equally as much of a whole food. By now, we all know that we’re probably eating way too much sugar, and that there’s probably more sugar in our food than we realize. So is coconut sugar actually any better for you than cane sugar? Here’s what we know.
The Health Differences Between Whole-Food Sweeteners
For the purposes of this article, we’re not going to touch on highly processed sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup. When it comes to natural sweeteners, which include cane sugar, their relative health factors are debatable.
While honey, for example seems very wholesome, it does not have a very different impact on the body from cane sugar, maple syrup, agave and the like. All of these sweeteners contain fructose and glucose, two different kinds of sugar molecules, according to Dr. Andrew Weil, and all of them contain glucose or are converted to glucose in the body.
Breakdown of Glucose and Fructose in Sweeteners
Now, how these sweeteners differ is in the ratios of glucose and fructose they contain. Agave, for example, contains 85 percent fructose, while maple syrup contains 35. This may have a demonstrable impact on the sweeteners’ respective health factors, according to David Wolfe.
“Fructose has been implicated in health issues such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity,” Wolfe says.
This is why high-fructose corn syrup gives many people cause for alarm. And while cane sugar is 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose, coconut sugar is about 40 percent fructose.
Why Coconut Sugar is Supposedly Different
Let’s talk about coconut sugar specifically. The reason it’s often touted as being nutritionally superior to cane sugar is because it is lower in glucose, and therefore, assumedly lower on the glycemic index. However, because fructose is converted to glucose in the body, this may not actually make a substantial difference on your body’s insulin response.
And actually, authority sources disagree on whether or not cane sugar should actually be given a lower GI score. The research that originally made this claim was a study commissioned by The Philippines, a leading exporter of coconuts, and only included 10 participants.
“GI can vary greatly between individuals and this study included only 10 people,” states Authority Nutrition. “GI can also vary between different batches of food, meaning that products from other manufacturers might have slightly different effects.”
And while The Philippines’ study found the GI of coconut sugar to be 25, the University of Sydney found it to be 54, a much higher index.
Since there are no conclusive studies on the issue, it stands to reason that GI alone should not be your reason for choosing coconut sugar over cane sugar.
Coconut Sugar’s Nutrient Profile
Finally, there is one case for coconut sugar that’s hard to dispute. While many natural sweeteners have no nutritional value and are actually empty calories, coconut sugar does contain a variety of minerals and nutrients.
“… Coconut sugar does retain quite a bit of the nutrients found in the coconut palm. There isn’t a lot of data on this, but according to the Philippine Department of Agriculture, coconut sugar contains several nutrients,” says Authority Nutrition. “Most notable of these are the minerals Iron, Zinc, Calcium and Potassium, along with some short chain fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants that may also provide some health benefits. Then it contains a fiber called inulin, which may slow glucose absorption and explain why coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than regular table sugar.”
Keep in mind, the study citing these nutritional benefits is the same study from The Philippines that stated the GI of coconut sugar was 35, while the University of Sydney found it to be 54.
The Bottom Line
In the end, you could certainly be using worse sweeteners (such as high-fructose corn syrup) than coconut sugar. But is it in any way nutritionally superior to cane sugar? Probably not. The data still needs to be collected, and most of the evidence points to no.