Is Coconut Sugar Really Low Carb?

Coconut palm sugar in measuring spoons

Coconut sugar also called coconut palm sugar, is the latest darling of the "healthy natural sugar" product market (one company has trademarked the slogan "Nature's Perfect Sugar" to describe it). I have seen claims that it is a "low-carb sugar", that it doesn't raise blood glucose (or at least not very much), and that it has other wonderful properties, including being loaded with minerals. Let's look at what it is and whether any of the claims have merit.

What Is Coconut Palm Sugar?

Basically, all forms of sugar that we buy in the store (be it a regular grocery store or a health food store) are concentrated forms of natural plant sugars. They might come from sugar cane, sugar beets, maple trees, flower nectar (honey), agave plants, rice -- the list goes on and on. By the time we buy these sugars in the store, they are fairly similar -- they are all mixtures of sugars, with approximately 16 calories and 4 grams of sugar (carb) per teaspoon. Coconut sugar is no exception.

Coconut palm sugar is produced from the nectar of coconut flower buds. The buds are cut open and the sap is captured, and then boiled down. The result is a caramel-colored sugar that has similarities to brown sugar. (By the way, you may also see "palm sugar", which is a similar sugar obtained from other types of palm tree than the coconut palm.)

How Glycemic Is Coconut Sugar?

The main health claim we are interested in made by purveyors of coconut sugar is that it doesn't raise blood sugar as much as other sugars.

Indeed, there is a report produced by the Philippines Food and Nutrition Institute which has been widely cited (but as of March 2016 has been withdrawn from the Internet) said that the glycemic index of "coco sugar prepared by the Philippine Coconut Authority" was calculated to be 35, based on the results from 10 test subjects.

This is indeed quite low.  On the other hand, a similar study reported by the University of Sydney came up with a glycemic index of 54, which is only a little lower than that of table sugar.

So why should we doubt the 35 number? There are a couple of possibilities that occur to me:

1) There was no indication of the range of responses in the report. Almost always, the report of a glycemic index study will state not only the average response to a food but the range of responses - how different people responded. This was not done in the Philippines study. Did some of the 10 people have a much higher response? We don't know.

On the other hand, one brand of coconut sugar (Sweet Tree) has the following disclaimer on the package: "Sweet Tree does not believe GI is a safe indicator of a sugar’s “friendliness” toward diabetics. In our experience, we have found that while coconut sweeteners have been shown to have GI levels as low as 35, continued tests have shown fluctuations. We believe this is dues to natural variables. Because of this fluctuation, we do not endorse the use of this product by diabetics.”

In other words, they have heard from people who's blood glucose goes up when they consumed coconut sugar.

 And who else would they hear from but people with diabetes, the only people who routinely test their blood glucose response to food?  It's worth adding here that glycemic index tests are almost always done on healthy young adults who are the least likely to have problems with blood sugar.  People with diabetes, pre-diabetes, and "pre-pre diabetes" often react differently.

2) It doesn't make sense. There is absolutely no coherent explanation as to why this sugar is different from all other sugars in its effects on blood glucose. According to industry descriptions, the sugar in coconut sugar is largely sucrose (half fructose and half glucose), so one would expect the glycemic index to be similar (about 60-65).

One explanation could be that it is actually largely fructose, similar to agave syrup. Since fructose doesn't raise blood glucose (but is implicated in a whole host of other problems), a high fructose component would not cause as much of a blood glucose response. But they are saying that the fructose concentration is comparable to other sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, cane sugar, etc. So it makes no sense that coconut sugar would act differently in the body.

If anyone reading this has tested their blood glucose after using this product and especially has compared it to other sweeteners, I would love to hear about your results.

Is Coconut Sugar Rich in Minerals?

"Coconut sugar is loaded with minerals!", the Web sites selling it loudly proclaim. How true is this really?

The claim can best be made for potassium. According to data released by the Philippine Food and Nutrition Research Institute, the amount of potassium in half a cup of coconut sugar is significant - over 1000 mg (the daily recommended intake for an adult is 4700 mg). But is consuming half a cup of sugar really a good way to get potassium? The amount in a teaspoon is 43 mg -- not so big a deal, especially compared with most meats and vegetables. For example, half a cup of most cooked greens have between 400 and 500 mg of potassium, and a 4 oz serving of most meats is about the same. 

The amounts of other minerals in coconut sugar is vanishingly small for the amounts people would actually eat. That same half a cup of the sugar contains 29 mg of magnesium (compare to 76 mg in half a cup of cooked spinach) and 2 mg of zinc.

Is Coconut Sugar Really More Sustainable?

"The most sustainable sugar on the planet!", some Web sites state. They are apparently basing this on the fact that there are real environmental problems with sugar cane production that are not present with coconut sugar production, where the tree can keep producing the sap year after year. Also, according to industry Web sites, less water is used, and coconut palms can grow in very poor soil (e.g. sandy beaches). However, to my knowledge, neither honey or maple syrup production present serious environmental concerns.

One issue that may be of importance to fans of coconut meat, milk, and oil: Once a coconut flower is "tapped" for the sap, it will not grow into a coconut. Since coconut farmers can currently get a lot more money for coconut sugar, some of the trees that were going into coconut production have been being tapped for coconut sugar instead. This may be one reason why the prices of coconut meat, milk, and oil have been rising.

The Bottom Line

Coconut sugar is very expensive sugar. If it is within your own carb limit and you want to experiment with it, go ahead, but make sure to have your blood glucose meter in hand when you do. I don't recommend it as being better than any other sugar for people following low-carb ways of eating.

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