With Dr. Oz promoting coconut palm sugar many people are hoping this could be an alternative sweetener used to replace ‘bad’ sugar in baking and general consumption. Is coconut palm sugar more hype than substance? Two points to consider:
- Ratio of fructose to glucose
- Glycemic Index & Load
1) Fructose : Glucose
What makes sugar inherently unhealthy for us is the effect on blood sugar levels and subsequent insulin response that over time leads to insulin resistance, and diabetes. What drives the intake of sugar is its delicious taste and ‘feel good’ response. This is what leads many people to over consumption of foods made with this sweet deliciousness, and thus weight gain and obesity. The biggest villain in the land of sugar and honey is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), because it is the primary sweetener used in processed foods due to its cheap cost of production and long shelf life. The ratio of fructose to glucose is what causes the spike in blood sugar levels. This ratio varies from 55 – 70% fructose depending upon the batch.
Agave nectar is often referred to as a ‘healthier’ sugar because it is marketed as having a lower glycemic index, however, depending upon the batch produced, I have seen fructose percentages vary from 56-92%! That is a large discrepancy and consumes will not know the exact percent unless they contact the manufacturer.
Big Tree Farms Organic Coconut Palm Sugar – Blonde that Dr. Oz endorses contains 72% sucrose which is molecule of fructose and glucose combined. Unlike HFCS, sucrose or ‘table sugar’ has to be broken down into fructose and glucose before being further metabolized by the liver however, this has negligible effects on blood sugar levels. This particular brand is processed not raw because as it explains on its website, this is required for necessary evaporation of water and crystallization of the sugar crystals. You can identify processed sugar crystals by the brown or blonde color as a result of the caramelization or ‘browning’, which contributes to a more robust flavor in addition to sweetness. Even though we collectively cringe around the word fructose because we know it is related to obesity and a myriad of health problems, when we eat sugar we want it to be sweet. So would anyone really buy a sugar alternative that was less than 65-70% sucrose or fructose if it didn’t taste the way we expect it to?
Coconut Secret claims their crystals are raw because evaporation and crystallization occur at lower temperatures, though the temp is not specified. To qualify as raw, a product has to be processed at a temp less than 118′ F. If the crystals are not caramelized then they would be less refined.
2) Glycemic Index
One of the biggest selling points that has been made for coconut sugar and agave is that they are low on the glycemic index (GI). I searched to find the exact number but was unable to find this value, however, in the grand scheme GI is useless. This is because unless you are eating sugar straight from the bottle or packet, the GI will change according to the actual meal or food item you are using it in. Instead of using the GI, the glycemic load (GL) of an actual meal or combination of foods could be looked at. This takes into account the entire carbohydrate amount in grams of the meal (or cookie recipe) not just the GI of the sugar. However, the GL does not take into account other ingredients that can affect blood sugar levels. For example, if you use coconut sugar in baking chocolate chip cookies, the butter, flour, eggs, chia, and flax will all reduce the GI value and slow the spike in blood sugar levels.
Coconut Secret cites a GI of 35 for their raw crystals and notes the minerals found in their ‘raw’ crystals as an added nutritional benefit compared to refined sugars. Big Tree Farms cites the minerals in their processed sugar crystals as assisting with a lower GI value (65) compared to other sugars, but I do not think that the minerals found in their crystals, though healthy, play a significant role in how the sugar is metabolized.
**Keep in mind that each persons response to sugar in the blood stream will vary depending upon health status including insulin resistance, fructose intolerance, triglycerides, and liver disorders.
Unfortunately, fructose is fructose and thought it is fantastic at fueling endurance exercise, should be avoided in most daily diets. All forms (agave, HFCS) should be used minimally, and raw versions should be chosen over processed versions. In addition to having a somewhat lower free fructose value and thus smaller spike in blood sugar, raw honey, maple, and coconut sugar also contain minerals.