Coconut Sugar vs. Table Sugar: Is One Really Healthier Than The Other?
It's pretty sweet that we've got several options of sugar to choose from. Between the likes of *sugar* sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, and palm sugar to name just a few, it often feels like we spend more time weighing our options than cooking or baking with the sweet stuff. If you've previously resorted to using coconut sugar as a healthier sugar replacement, let's check in with the experts to see if that's really a good idea.
Coconut sugar vs. table sugar.
Despite its name, coconut sugar won't quite make any of your baked goods taste like a piña colada—it comes from coconut tree flower buds rather than the meat itself. "Coconut sugar is a natural sugar made from coconut palm sap," dietitian-nutritionist Dana K. Monsees, M.S., CNS, LDN, previously told mbg. "It's also referred to as coconut palm sugar or coconut palm sap in liquid form." The taste is more similar to brown sugar and resembles raw sugar, with a brown tint and smaller granules.
Coconut sugar is less processed than table sugar: The sap is dried and packaged without any additional processing and thus retains more nutrients like iron, zinc, and magnesium along with other polyphenols, explains Catherine Perez, R.D., founder of Plant Based R.D.
That said, Shanthi Appelö, R.D., says, "It's not a health food and shouldn't be consumed in excess."
Here's how they stack up nutritionally:
- 15 calories
- 0 g total fat
- 0 mg sodium
- 4 g carbohydrate
- 0 g fiber
- 4 g sugar
- 0 g protein
- 15 calories
- 0 g total fat
- 0 mg sodium
- 4 g carbohydrate
- 0 g fiber
- 4 g sugar
- 0 g protein
Benefits of coconut sugar.
Beyond its minimal processing and sourcing from plants, coconut sugar has a few other benefits going for it, too:
It may be better for blood sugar balance.
Perez says coconut contains small amounts of inulin, a prebiotic, soluble fiber, which digests slowly and is beneficial for gut health. Since it slows digestion, this fiber can also help maintain blood sugar balance.
As such, "Coconut sugar is lower on the glycemic index (GI) than cane sugar or even maple sugar," New York City–based holistic nurse practitioner Victoria Albina, N.P., MPH previously shared with mbg.
Research published in 3Food Science & Nutrition3 suggests that the GI value of coconut sugar is 35, while sugar cane can vary from 58 to 82, on a scale of 100. But it's important to note that the GI will vary based on food pairings or combos.
It may support bone health.
A 100-gram serving of coconut sugar provides 875 milligrams of the heart-healthy mineral potassium and 375 milligrams of calcium, which is essential for bone health.
Perez says that while many of these nutrients sound like a major positive, it's important to note that you would need to consume a large quantity of coconut sugar to see any impact. "You're better off nourishing yourself using whole-food options like whole grains, fruits, vegetables and plant proteins," she says.
It could promote sustainability.
Our personal health is tied to planetary health, so that's something to consider when it comes to making nutrition decisions. "Another benefit to coconut sugar is that it is a more environmentally sustainable choice than palm sugar or cane sugar," says Albina.
"Just make sure to pick a fair-trade-certified and organic brand to reap that benefit," says Appelö.
How to substitute coconut sugar in recipes
Coconut sugar may be used as a one-to-one sugar substitute in recipes from baked goods to sauces and syrups to coffee. From a taste perspective, Perez says coconut sugar has a mellow caramel-like flavor to it, which may cause desserts to taste different compared to using other sugars.
Cooking with coconut sugar tends to get a little more complicated from a texture standpoint: "The science of baking can be tricky, so it's important to keep in mind that coconut sugar doesn't have the same chemical makeup as table sugar and may not form the same type of structure," says Appelö, adding that coconut sugar tends to do well in recipes that have a considerable amount of liquids and fat.
To overcome an "overly porous aftermath when baking," Appelö recommends taking your coconut sugar for a ride in the blender or food processor to achieve a more similar texture to cane sugar.
It's worth noting that coconut sugar can't handle temperatures as high as cane or brown sugar. Appelö recommends avoiding temperatures over 280 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid burning.
When using coconut sugar in place of liquid sweeteners or brown sugar, Appelö notes that it tends to be drier than other sweeteners, so you're best off adding some extra liquid or moisture to the mix like yogurt or a mashed banana.
How coconut sugar compares to other sweeteners:
Coconut sugar vs. palm sugar
Because palm sugar often goes by the name coconut palm sugar, the two are easy to confuse, but the sweeteners couldn't be more different. The two sugars come from different plants and have different harvesting methods (palm sugar is derived from boiling sap from palm flowers until it's reduced to sugar granules, but it's also sold as a paste). While both palm sugar and coconut sugar have notes of caramel, some describe palm sugar as having smoky overtones.
When opting for coconut sugar, be sure to read labels carefully, says Appelö. "It's worth noting that labels and packaging can be misleading when deciphering between the two, so it's best to read the ingredient list to be sure coconut sugar is what you're getting," she says. "In fact, many companies mix in cane and other types of sugar for cost savings while still labeling the product as coconut sugar."
Perez adds that depending on the type of palm sugar you use, you may get different flavor notes and deeper colors, but from a nutrition perspective, they're quite similar.
Coconut sugar vs. monk fruit
According to Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, registered dietitian and author of The Little Book of Game-Changers, both coconut sugar and monk fruit are typically used as sucrose or table sugar replacements, though monk fruit has a bit more of an aftertaste akin to stevia. Because monk fruit tends to dissolve a bit better than coconut sugar, she says it's also a great option for beverages (note, however, that both coconut sugar and monk fruit dissolve well in hot water). Since monk fruit is much sweeter than coconut sugar, a tiny pinch goes a long way.
Unlike coconut sugar, which has a slight GI impact thanks to its prebiotic fiber content, Cording says monk fruit is a non-nutritive or non-caloric sweetener that won't have any impact on your blood sugar. Monk fruit does have small amounts of antioxidant properties.
Cording notes that as with any product, it's important to check the label for any filler ingredients before adding it to your cart. In this case, you want 100% pure monk fruit.
Coconut sugar vs. date sugar
If you're looking for another sugar alternative with some extra nutrients, date sugar is a noteworthy option.
Instead of coming from the palm tree itself, date sugar is made from the fruit of the date tree, which is ground up and dried into sugar, explains Perez. As a result, all the fiber, vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content we know and love about dates remain intact, like vitamin A, vitamin B complex, iron, and zinc. While its fiber content associated with slower blood sugar absorption is a plus, Perez says, you would need to consume large quantities of date sugar to achieve any significant nutrient benefits.
When it comes to cooking, you might be better off going for coconut sugar. That's because it's derived from the sap of coconut tree flowers, whereas date sugar is made from granulated dried dates, which will prevent it from dissolving in liquids, Appelö says. This makes coconut sugar more recipe-friendly, in general.
Coconut sugar vs. honey
Coconut sugar nectar has a texture similar to honey, according to Appelö, so they're quite interchangeable in recipes. If you're going the granulated coconut sugar route, she recommends using a quarter cup for every cup of honey and adding some liquid elements to the recipe. Taste-wise, she says many honeys offer floral notes, while coconut sugar provides notes of caramel.
If you're looking to keep it low on the glycemic index, honey is slightly higher than coconut sugar (58 vs. 54, respectively)—so it might not be your best bet. Where honey does have advantages over coconut sugar is the abundance of research4 available, says Perez. "Honey has polyphenols and very small traces of fiber […] And while, like coconut sugar, it does have some trace nutrients, you would need to consume a lot to find benefit," she says.
Coconut sugar vs. agave
Comparing coconut sugar to agave is a bit of an apples-to-oranges situation: Agave is much higher in fructose compared to coconut sugar, says Perez.
From a health perspective, Appelö explains that agave syrup comes from the blue agave plant and undergoes heavier processing than coconut sugar. Therefore, it doesn't retain as many nutrients. Agave's flavor profile is much more neutral than coconut sugar, making it a little more versatile in recipes.
After stacking coconut sugar against traditional table sugar, it certainly seems to come out on top. It gets points for having more nutrients, the highest fiber content, better versatility in recipes, and the lowest glycemic index compared to other options.
That said, if you're looking for a top-notch natural sweetener, we would recommend opting for the blood-sugar-friendly monk fruit as an alternative option.
Just like any other sweet food, it's best to consume these sugar alternatives in moderation. As Perez notes, "sugar is sugar is sugar." It's best to "minimize intake of sugars altogether, and focus on foods that will provide more nutrition bang for our buck."
Marissa Miller is a certified personal trainer from the American Council on Exercise and holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies at Cornell. She has over 10 years of experience editing and reporting on all things health, nutrition, beauty, fitness, style and home for publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and many more.
Her first novel PRETTY WEIRD: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome and Other Oddly Empowering Lessons was published by Skyhorse Publishing and distributed by Simon & Schuster in May 2021.