Coconut Sugar: A Natural Low(er)-GI Sweetener That’s Rich(er) in Minerals
Once thought to be relatively harmless, traditional refined table sugar now finds itself at the center of a major scientific controversy. Scientific studies continue to demonstrate the health dangers of excessive sugar intake, leading consumers to search for healthier sweetener alternatives. One 2015 in vivo clinical trial, for instance, found that participants who reduced dietary sugar intake and substituted with starch saw improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, insulin response, and body weight. The study authors said that sugar’s negative health effects are independent of its caloric density or its effect on weight gain and pinpointed fructose specifically as a problematic sugar to be limited or avoided.(5)
Coconut sugar, in contrast, offers some minor advantages over standard white and brown sugar. Coconut sugar—made by evaporating the water out of coconut sap—is high in inulin, a fiber that has been found to promote weight loss through fat oxidation and reduce body weight in randomized clinical trials involving pre-diabetic patients. (6) One randomized double-blind clinical trial also found that coconut-derived D-xylose has a lower glycemic index than table sugar;(7) however, this study failed to account for coconut sugar’s high fructose level.
Some research indicates that coconut sugar is a low-glycemic index (GI) sweetener and rich in minerals compared to table sugar—but experts say these findings come with important caveats. While some scientists and manufacturers claim that coconut sugar has a glycemic index of 35,(8) the University of Sydney (Sydney, Australia) and other institutions peg coconut sugar’s glycemic index in the mid-50s.(9) This is still lower than that of standard white table sugar, but it’s significantly higher than the GI of natural sugars found in most fruits.
Victoria Taylor, senior dietician for the British Heart Foundation (London, UK), says that coconut sugar has just as many calories as other sugars. Taylor notes that while coconut sugar does contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, these nutrients aren’t present in large enough quantities to render any health benefits. Taylor says that in order to benefit from these nutrients, one would need to consume extremely large amounts of coconut sugar, at which point any theoretical health benefit from vitamins or other nutrients would be greatly outweighed by the detrimental effects of excessive sugar consumption.(10)
Experts like Taylor say that coconut sugar is still a sugar and thus it should still be used sparingly. However, coconut sugar manufacturers can confidently say that coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than white table sugar, making it a good alternative for health-conscious consumers. Coconut sugar manufacturer Big Tree Farms recommends using coconut sugar as a 1:1 replacement for regular brown sugar.
As coconut sugar continues to grow in popularity, manufacturers and distributors will likely face unique challenges in the form of sugar industry resistance.
The research on sugar, at first glance, appears to be mixed. A 2016 literature review published in Annals of Internal Medicine claims that dietary restrictions on sugar are based on low-quality evidence.(11) But digging deeper, the real story emerges: Scientists are speaking out on the dangers of excessive sugar intake, and the sugar industry is pushing back with “science” of its own. In 2016, The New York Times reported on the above-mentioned literature review, which lambastes health experts who advise consumers to cut back on sugar. (12) The pro-sugar Annals review, which concludes that “guidelines on dietary sugar do not meet criteria for trustworthy recommendations and are based on low-quality evidence,” declared the International Life Sciences Institute (ISLI) as its primary funding source. The New York Times reporting found that ISLI receives funding from food and agrochemical corporations, including General Mills, Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, Monsanto, and Hershey’s—a clear conflict of interest.
The New York Times’ reporting also unveiled a variety of methodological and scientific shortcomings in the review, and compares the paper to tobacco industry efforts to influence scientific literature on the health effects of smoking.
Against this type of backdrop, companies in the coconut sugar niche could soon face a unique challenge: navigating the war between scientists and Big Sugar without getting caught in the crossfire.
References listed on last slide.
Photo from Big Tree Farms