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Is Coconut Sugar a Better Sugar Alternative?
Advertising Hype and Reality in the Selling of Coconut Sugar

Is Coconut Sugar a Better Sugar Alternative?
Do you know the differences
between these common sugar products?

We are a nation that loves sweet food, but we hate the health consequences of all that sugar. Food companies figured that out a long time ago. To keep you buying more, advertisers learned that the best way to push junk food was by giving it a healthy glow.

"Sugar Frosted Flakes" became "Frosted Flakes," sugar-filled sodas changed into energy drinks and alternative sweeteners are promoted as healthier options to replace white sugar. A few years ago fitness magazines and foodies were singing the praises of agave nectar as the perfect replacement for table sugar. It was all-natural and lower on the glycemic chart.

The reality is that agave is just as calorie-dense, and the long-term effects of eating too much are exactly the same as too much white sugar. Replacing one for the other isn't a solution, it's merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. No matter how good they look, the boat's still going down.

Coconut sugar is America's newest way to eat sweets without guilt. The product is known by several names, including coconut palm sugar, coco sugar or coco sap sugar. It's made by cutting the flower buds of the coconut palm and collecting the sap. The sap is heated to remove the moisture and a thick syrup or "toddy" is what remains. That's then processed into crystals, block or paste form for resale.

Don't confuse coconut sugar with palm sugar, even if some people use the names interchangeably. Palm sugar is made from sap drained from stems of palm trees other than the coconut palm. It's different in both taste and texture from the coconut palm.

The sales pitches target various hot buttons depending on the target audience.

Pitch #1: Coconut sugar is more "natural" (and therefore automatically better) because it undergoes less processing than table sugar.

The reality is that it doesn't matter how many steps either item goes through before they reach your plate. What matters is the nutritional value of the final product. The nutritional breakdown of a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of coconut sugar are the same, and both short and long-term effects of eating too much of them are the same. Calling it "natural" doesn't make it better. (Poison mushrooms are natural, but I certainly wouldn't recommend adding them to your salad.)

Pitch #2: Coconut sugar includes nutrients found in the coconut palm that are good for you.

That's true. Coconut sugar does contain trace amounts of minerals like calcium, iron, potassium and zinc. It also has polyphenols and antioxidants that may have health benefits. Coconut sugar also has a fiber called inulin, which may be the reason it's absorbed slower into the bloodstream and rates lower on the glycemic scale than white sugar.

(The glycemic index is a measure of how fast foods get absorbed into the bloodstream and raise blood sugar levels. Foods that are high on the scale, like white sugar, can cause spikes and then dramatic drops. Those drops can sap you of energy and leave you feeling more tired and hungry than before you ate anything.)

But (and this is a biggie), the amounts of all those good things like minerals and antioxidants are so small, you'd have to eat several cups of coconut sugar a day to see any real benefit from them. Of course, eating all that sugar would be disastrous to your health.

Pitch #3: Coconut sugar is fructose free, and everyone knows that fructose is the real reason why white sugar is so bad for you.

People that say that are lying. Regular white sugar or SUCROSE is composed of about 50% fructose and 50% glucose.

Surprise! Between 70% and 79% of coconut sugar is made of SUCROSE. The same thing that makes white sugar so unappealing for many is also the primary component of coconut sugar. The fructose levels are very nearly the same.

All sugar products whether they're sugar cane, sugar beets, honey, maple syrup or agave are plant sugars that farmers and processors have collected and concentrated. A teaspoon of any of them will give you about 16 calories and approximately 4 grams of sugar. Coconut sugar is exactly the same.

Quit switching from one to another, there's no real benefit. Look for ways to reduce all sweeteners in your diet until they're down to reasonable levels.

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Published in Print 5/3/2015