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May 24, 2020

Peruse the baking aisle of just about any major supermarket these days, and you'll likely be struck by the variety of sugar products packing the shelves. While major chains once stocked two options at most (white and brown), they're now selling all kinds of sugar (and sugar-like) products, ranging from saccharine and aspartame to sucralose and xylitol. But one form of sweetener, in particular, has been creating a buzz due to its inclusion of one of the hottest "superfoods" of the moment—so what is coconut sugar, exactly?

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What is coconut sugar?

Made from the sap of the coconut palm tree, coconut sugar resembles brown, granulated sugar. For the most part, it tastes similar to brown sugar too—it's sweet for sure but has more of a caramel taste than a coconutty one. The brown color indicates the coconut sugar is unrefined and unprocessed, unlike white cane sugar. Some research suggests coconut sugar could be a more nutritious choice when it comes to sweeteners, and some argue the sugar can fit into certain food plans, like the paleo or ketogenic diet.

"Coconut sugar is a natural sugar made from coconut palm sap," says dietitian-nutritionist Dana K. Monsees, M.S., CNS, LDN. "It's also referred to as coconut palm sugar or coconut palm sap in liquid form." Technically, it's quite similar to white sugar. "Calorie for calorie and gram for gram, coconut sugar is equivalent to classic white table sugar (15 calories, 4 grams sugar per teaspoon)," says registered dietitian Danielle Fineberg, M.S., R.D.

Here's how coconut sugar nutritionally stacks up, per teaspoon.

Coconut sugar:

  • 15 calories
  • 0 g total fat
  • 0 mg sodium
  • 4 g carbohydrate
  • 0 g fiber
  • 4 g sugar
  • 0 g protein
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White cane sugar:

  • 15 calories
  • 0 g total fat
  • 0 mg sodium
  • 4 g carbohydrate
  • 0 g fiber
  • 4 g sugar
  • 0 g protein

Is coconut sugar better than traditional sugar?

If the two are almost nutritionally identical, what's the potential upside to using one over the other? "In the refining process of white sugar, it is stripped from all of its vitamins and minerals," Fineberg explains. "Coconut sugar does not go through as rigorous a refining process; therefore, it contains trace amounts of minerals. That being said, you would need to eat a lot of sugar to receive any measurable benefits from those minerals." Some of the minerals you will find in coconut sugar—albeit, in small amounts—include iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, along with short-chain fatty acids.

The nutritional stats don't seem to indicate much of a difference between coconut sugar and regular cane sugar, but are their benefits on any other level? "Coconut sugar is lower on the glycemic index (GI) than cane sugar or even maple sugar," says New York City–based holistic nurse practitioner Victoria Albina, N.P., MPH. "Foods with a lower GI are more slowly absorbed, thereby reducing the health-damaging insulin spike."

To Albina's point, research indicates that the GI value of coconut sugar is 35 ± 4, while white cane sugar (sucrose) is 65 ± 4. Researchers believe this lower value may make coconut sugar a more appealing option for people with diabetes or those seeking out a sweetener that doesn't drastically affect their glucose levels. However, additional research is necessary.

Beyond the nutritional numbers, coconut sugar may be a preferable choice for some for other reasons. "Coconut sugar is an alternative to cane sugar, tends to not be genetically modified, and is usually not bleached," Albina says. "Another benefit to coconut sugar is that it is a more environmentally sustainable choice than palm sugar or cane sugar."

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Alternative sweeteners that are keto-friendly.

If coconut sugar isn't for you but you'd still like to integrate a cane sugar alternative into your diet, you have options. Not sure where to start in the decision-making process? Fineberg offers one simple rule of thumb for figuring out which type of sugar to use: "Choose the one that tastes best to you, and try to keep your overall added sugar intake to about 25 grams per day (for women) and 36 grams per day (for men) for optimal health," she says.

A few other things to consider when selecting a sugar alternative: "While agave and xylitol are both also low GI, they are both highly processed, while coconut sugar is not," Albina says. "And xylitol can cause gastrointestinal upset in many people." That said, if you're eager to sample some other sweet options besides cane sugar, here are some options you might want to try as you figure out what works best for your diet and lifestyle:

  • Agave
  • Stevia
  • Sucralose
  • Erythritol
  • Xylitol
  • Monk Fruit Sweetener
  • Yacon Syrup
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The bottom line.

Coconut sugar is lower on the glycemic index and has trace amounts of certain minerals that white cane sugar loses in the refining process. It is also a more environmentally sustainable choice than palm sugar or cane sugar. As with all sugar, just be sure to keep your intake of any kind of sugar to around 25 to 36 grams per day.

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.
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