In recent years, coconut sugar has become a popular alternative sweetener, given the concern regarding the increased use of synthetic sugars and high-fructose corn syrup in so many foods. However, before you add this natural sweetener to your diet, it is important to understand where it comes from, how to use it, and the potential benefits it can have on your health.
What is Coconut Sugar?
Coconut sugar, as the name implies, is derived from the coconut fruit of the coconut palm tree. Scientifically known as Cocos nucifera, this tree grows in a variety of regions in the world, particularly in Asian nations and tropical areas. This type of natural sugar is acquired from the sap of cut flower buds of the coconut palm and then using it in the same way as normal sugar.
Unlike traditional table sugar, due to the simple collection and production processes, coconut sugar retains a significant amount of the nutrients from that sap, which include zinc, potassium, magnesium, calcium, copper, polyphenolic compounds, specialized fiber, vitamin C and other antioxidants, rather than the basic “empty calories” of traditional sugar. However, coconut sugar is still very high in fructose, which is potentially bad for many health conditions. Essentially, coconut sugar is considered to be healthier than normal sugar, but it must still be consumed in moderation.
In Asian countries, particularly Indonesia, it has been widely collected and produced for thousands of years, but it is only in recent decades that this has emerged as a viable replacement for traditional sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
Health Benefits of Coconut Sugar
There are quite a few impressive health benefits of coconut sugar including its ability to manage diabetes, boost the immune system, strengthen bones, lower blood pressure, aid in weight loss efforts, and improve mood.
Reduces Weight Gain
With a lower level of fructose than normal table sugar, coconut sugar is less likely to contribute to fat deposition. When the liver processes fructose, it releases triglycerides, which are a form of fat. The fructose you consume from the fruit is considered healthy and appropriate, but added sugar should have a lower level of fructose. In comparison to high-fructose corn syrup and other natural sugars, coconut sugar is lower in fructose content, meaning that it will lead to less weight gain and fat deposition.
Increases Blood Circulation
The small level of iron found in coconut sugar will have an impact on your overall blood circulation, which can increase oxygenation and nutrient availability in the body. Iron is a key component in red blood cells, and without proper levels in the body, you may suffer the symptoms of anemia, including muscle weakness, headaches, fatigue, and gastrointestinal problems.
Lowers Bad Cholesterol
The unique form of fiber found in coconut sugar, inulin, has been linked to lowering overall cholesterol levels in the body. By lowering LDL cholesterol and raising HDL cholesterol, this sugar can help minimize your cardiovascular risk and prevent symptoms of atherosclerosis and plaque deposition.
Prevents Oxidative Stress
Polyphenolic compounds and phytonutrients in this sugar act as antioxidants in the body. This will lower the impact of free radicals and prevent oxidative stress, which increases the risk of chronic diseases and chronic inflammation, among others.
Regulates Blood Pressure
The amount of potassium in this sugar may be minimal but it is enough to affect blood pressure. Potassium acts as a vasodilator in the body, relieving tension in the blood vessels and arteries and preventing strain on the cardiovascular system, including lowering your risk for heart attacks and strokes.
For people living with diabetes, coconut sugar is an alternative to regular sugar. While it could prove to be more nutritional than regular sugar as it undergoes minimal processing, the calorie content is the same as regular sugar.
Improves Bone Health
There are several important minerals found in coconut sugar, including zinc, potassium, iron, calcium, and copper, which play an important role in building bone mineral density and lowering your risk of osteoporosis as you age.
Inulin, the specialized form of fiber in coconut sugar, can stimulate the activity of bifidobacteria in the gut, a valuable probiotic, that can balance the bacteria levels in the stomach. This will improve digestive efficiency and nutrient uptake, while also promoting a healthy gut environment.
Some studies have found that regular, moderate use of this sugar can aid in hormone and neurotransmitter levels, which will reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and can lead to more stable moods.
Increases Energy Levels
The raw materials for energy found in coconut sugar are slightly different than traditional table sugar, and take longer for the body to process. This means more consistent and long-term energy metabolism, so you will have reliable energy levels throughout the day, rather than the sugar rush and inevitable crash.
Strengthens Immune System
With trace levels of vitamin C in this sugar, it does have a minimal impact on the immune system and can drive the production of white blood cells, which are the body’s first line of defense against foreign substances and infectious pathogens.
How to Use Coconut Sugar?
Coconut sugar can be used in many ways, just as regular sugar, but the collection and production process requires a bit more effort. Furthermore, it is known to be sweeter than traditional sugar, so less is required to achieve the same flavor. Use approximately half as much coconut sugar as a recipe calls for traditional sugar, and then increase to boost sweetness, as necessary.
Coconut sugar can be used in the preparation of desserts and candies, and also added to cocktails, shakes or smoothies for a sweet boost. You can also use coconut sugar on savory dishes or on vegetables/fruits to caramelize them. This sugar is also popular in beverages like tea and coffee, or in sauces and dips. Remember, moderation is key, or it can be just as dangerous as regular table sugar for your overall health.
How to Prepare Coconut Sugar?
Coconut sugar, as mentioned, is derived from the flower of the coconut palm. A small cut is made, which allows the sap to come out, where it can be collected in a container. That sap should be heated or left in the sun until the majority of the water has evaporated. If you stir this mixture continuously, it will speed the process up, and the sap will become granulated. When it is fully dry, you can crush or grind the dry sap into a powdered form, to be used in any culinary application.
Side Effects of Coconut Sugar
There are some potentially dangerous side effects to excessive consumption of coconut sugar, including problems with diabetes, cardiovascular complications, a lowered metabolism, weight gain, and chronic inflammation. To avoid these side effects, however, simply use this sugar in moderation.
As with regular sugar, coconut sugar too can cause problems for people with diabetes, due to the level of fructose found in this natural sugar variant. Although the concentration of fructose is lower in coconut sugar, it can still be broken down into simple sugars and will result in dangerous spikes in blood sugar and lower insulin sensitivity. This process is somewhat offset by the presence of inulin, a specific type of fiber, but moderation is still key.
Consuming too much sugar in any form can put your cardiovascular health in jeopardy. Studies have found a direct link between added sugar intake and the breakdown of blood vessels and arteries, which can put your heart health at risk.
If too much coconut sugar is consumed, the body will be unable to process all of it into usable energy, resulting in some of those carbohydrates (fructose) being stored as fat. This can lead to extra adipose fat deposition, which will result in weight gain. Coconut sugar is also quite high in calories, which isn’t a good thing for people trying to lose weight and maintain a strict calorie count.
Additional fat deposition and high levels of sugar can slow down the metabolism, despite the energetic burst it appears to provide. In small amounts, coconut sugar is perfectly healthy and may benefit the smooth functioning of the metabolism, but in large amounts, it will have the opposite effect.
Inflammation is a common side effect of too much sugar in the diet. This is partially due to the extra fat deposition that occurs, which can lead to inflammation in the gut and surrounding organs. Diabetic patients and those at high risk also experience a higher level of inflammation.