Everybody wants a healthier alternative to sugar. But could coconuts be the solution?!
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If you’ve heard coconut sugar being touted as the perfect substitute for regular cane sugar, you might be tempted to try it. Registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD, LD, explains what you need to know about this sweet swap — and why it’s probably not worth going (coco)nuts for.
Coconut sugar is exactly what it sounds like: An all-natural, plant-based sugar made from the sap of the coconut palm tree. You might expect it to be white and coconutty, but it’s actually a tan-colored substance with a slightly caramelly taste.
“Coconut sugar looks a lot like raw cane sugar, which is probably because it’s processed in a very similar way,” Czerwony explains. “The sap of the coconut palm is boiled down until most of the water evaporates, and then, it turns into this granulated product.”
Coconut sugar originated in Southeast Asia and has since become popular elsewhere, especially among folks in search of healthy alternatives to less-healthy foods. But is this one actually a worthy swap?
We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but cane sugar and coconut sugar aren’t all that different — and neither of them is particularly good for you. They come from different plants, but they’re made similarly and affect your body similarly, so there are no real health benefits, per se, to using one over the other.
Still, Czerwony walks us through the (very small) differences between them and the claims in favor of coconut sugar.
Coconut sugar is primarily touted as having one benefit over regular sugar: A lower glycemic index. This measurement scale classifies foods based on how fast they raise the amount of sugar in your blood (aptly known as your blood sugar).
Many foods, from fruit salad to Halloween candy, have some amount of sugar in them — some naturally occurring and some added. The glycemic index helps you identify which foods will raise your blood sugar the fastest, with 100 representing pure glucose and zero meaning a food has no sugar in it at all.
“Table sugar has a glycemic index of 60, and coconut sugar has a glycemic index of 54, which means it doesn’t raise the blood sugar as fast,” Czerwony explains. “That’s because coconut sugar has a little bit of inulin in it, which provides a bit of fiber.”
Inulin is a type of prebiotic fiber produced by plants. One of its many benefits is that it helps stabilize blood sugar, which can help you feel full longer (and thus help keep you from overeating).
There are no nutrients in regular sugar. But coconut sugar does retain some of the nutrients originally found in coconuts, like:
Not so fast, though: These nutrients are all found in coconut sugar in verrrry small amounts — definitely not enough to make it healthy by any stretch of the imagination.
“You’d have to eat so much coconut sugar to get any kind of beneficial amounts,” Czerwony says, “and by that point, the calories from the amount of sugar you’d consumed would cancel out those benefits anyway.”
In other words, if you need more iron and potassium in your diet, eating more coconut sugar shouldn’t be a factor in your approach.
Some sugar substitutes and sugar alternatives can’t be used the same way you’d use regular sugar. Yacon syrup, for example, breaks down at high temperatures, so you can’t use it in cooking or baking. And though stevia-based sweeteners stand up to heat, you have to first do some serious math to adjust the ratios.
Coconut sugar, on the other hand, is so similar to regular sugar that it doesn’t have those kinds of limitations.
“It’s a one-to-one ratio, so you don’t have to change the amounts you’re using,” Czerwony says, “and you can use it in all the same ways you’d use regular sugar.”
Coconut sugar’s lower glycemic index might make it a more appealing choice than table sugar, especially for people with diabetes. But for the most part, Czerwony warns, don’t be fooled by the marketing that promotes coconut sugar as a healthier, more natural alternative to regular sugar.
They’re not all that different.
“Coconut sugar is very similar to regular cane table sugar,” she says. “It has about the same amount of calories, so all things considered, it’s just about the same — no better and no worse.”
When it comes to sugar, then, the best thing you can do for your health isn’t to switch to coconut sugar. It’s to scale back on your intake altogether.
“If you’re trying to decrease your overall sugar intake and improve your diet but you still want to have something sweet, explore alternatives like monk fruit sweetener,” Czerwony suggests.
Think you can’t possibly kick your sweet tooth? Here’s a reassuring bit of bodily info: Your taste buds slough off and regenerate every couple of weeks, which means your tastes change over time, too. If you start slowly scaling back on sugars, you’ll be acclimated to a less-saccharine lifestyle before you know it!