Is This The Next Agave?

Every few years a new sweetener comes along claiming to be the “healthy” sugar.  It tastes just like “real sugar” (usually meaning cane sugar) but with a long list of benefits that rapidly turn it into the must-have sweetener of the day.  The timeline goes something like this:

  •     In ancient times: Honey
  •     More recent ancient times: Cane sugar (Brought to Europe from India)
  •     1800’s: Beet sugar
  •     Early 1900’s: Saccharin (Made popular during WW1 when sugar was in short supply. Later popular with the first diet sodas in the 60’s.)
  •     1970s: High fructose corn syrup (Became wildly popular because of its low cost)
  •     1980’s: Aspartame (Think SnackWell cookies. It came at a time when sugar was highly demonized as the agent of weight gain.)
  •     1990’s: Sucralose (The ingredient in Splenda and marketed as the “healthier” alternative to aspartame, but controversy arise over its slogan “Tastes like sugar because it’s made from sugar” (A huge stretch in the “truth”))
  •     2005: Agave (Hyped as healthy, but in fact most brands are no better for you than any other sugar.)
  •     2008: Stevia (The no calorie sweetener that comes directly from a plant. Only downside is a really dreadful, licorice aftertaste.)
  •     And now: Coconut sugar (Made from the sap of coconut trees)

Although it has no fewer calories or carbs than cane sugar, coconut sugar is being hyped as the “savior” of the sugar world, because:

  1. It is minimally processed – especially when labeled “organic”
  2. It has trace nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron and amino acids
  3. It’s low on the Glycemic Index – a measure of the effect of carbs on blood sugar

Or is it ….

I’ve become a tad suspect of sugars that get hyped as healthy and safe for diabetics. Pure sugar is totally unnecessary in our diet and our bodies get all that we need when our body converts carbs to glucose.  If we’re looking to sugar to provide us with nutrients, we’re in big trouble.

Agave is the latest “healthy sugar” to be challenged – now that word has gotten out that most brands are highly processed and has as much fructose as HFCS.

Unless we’re talking stevia, (which is not a sugar but a plant extract that gives the mouth the sensation of sweet), or artificial sweeteners which have their own issues, sugars have a very similar impact on our body.  I’ve seen food labeled “Sugar-free” only to notice that the second ingredient is agave!  Or honey!  Ie. Non-cane-sugar, sugar.

But what really got me wondering about the validity of the “Low GI” claim on all the packages and on all the lips of the health food store vendors, is when I came across the brand Sweet Tree that actually challenges this claim right on its own package!  See that little asterix next to the “Low GI” claim?

This is what it says on the back of the package:

“* Sweet Tree does not believe GI is a safe indicator of a sugar’s “friendliness” toward diabetics. In our experience we have found that while coconut sweeteners have been shown to have GI levels as low as 35†, continued tests have shown fluctuations. We believe this is dues to natural variables. Because of this fluctuation, we do not endorse the use of this product by diabetics.”  (†Cane sugar is usually in the 60’s)

I can’t think of any product I’ve seen that makes a claim but then goes on to say, “But there’s a catch”. Now that’s a brand I can trust.

So my recommendation: If you’re looking for a less processed sugar, coconut sugar is a great alternative. It also tastes similar to cane sugar so you can use it the same way.  If you’re also willing to pay extra for some trace nutrients, go for it. But if you’re looking for a sugar to “nourish” you, you’re going to need to down many pounds of the stuff to get the same level of potassium you’d get in a banana or the iron you’d get in a few leaves of spinach. And if you’re buying it thinking, “Finally a REAL sugar that won’t affect my blood sugar!” you might have to wait a few more decades for that one …

Your thoughts?  Have you tried coconut sugar? Any changes you’ve made to the type of sugar you consume?

Related Posts

How Bad Can It Be When It Tastes This Good (Sugar comparisons)
Soy Milk: A Bowl of FruitLoops in Every Glass? (Another place where sugar lurks)


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  • Gjrhine

    Why is maltitol not in the list?

  • Emily

    I have to say, you hit the nail on the head in my book!  Your thoughts are EXACTLY what I have been thinking myself.  Especially when this stuff is showing up in all the markets.  I feel the same way!  Although I am sure it is a “fine” product, I do resent the new marketing style and am tired of having to wait a year or two for studies to show that the product wasn’t so great all along.  I agree, let’s just learn to cut the stuff out of our diets completely and when you want something sweet, your body will be able to handle the real thing in moderation if it is not bombarded with it all the time.  Thanks for another great post! :)

  • Wendy (Healthy Girl’s Kitchen)

    What do you think about Succanat? How does it compare to Coconut Palm Sugar, with the understanding that all sugar is not a health food. I’m just looking to establish the least harmful version of sugar!

  • Juliebaumlisberger

    Great informative article, thanks!

  • wholehealthgirl

    Great article and spot on.  I have switched in the last year to this exact brand of coconut sugar for when I need it for baking.  It works well but it is not as sweet as real sugar.  If you are one who has eliminated sugar from your diet except for special occasions, then you won’t have an issue with it. If you are one who likes sweet things you may find yourself using more than you should.
    Like you say, there is really is no healthy sugar out there but this is probably the best as of now.

  • Jenny

    Sugar Blues, by William Duffy. . . if anyone hasn’t read it. . . I highly suggest this quick and fascinating (and admittedly a little frightening) read!   Sugar has quite a crazy history. . . 

    Personally I choose to try and let the vegetables and fruits (carbs) become my source of sugar as available seasonally and avoid any additional sugar source whenever possible.  Every so often, a tiny treat makes someone really happy so eating that sugar becomes more of a human connection acceptance and my body just has to deal with it. 😉

    If I do bake or sweeten something (often for others) I use honey, since it’s the purest and most ancient form of sugar besides fruit, packed with enzymes and healing properties . . . and offer a tremendous amount of gratitude to our sister bees for letting us use their sweet food too. 

    Great post!

    • Itsmejenny

      thanks jenny. i will definitely look into that book. agree with you on all else. yummy local honeys.

  • Anonymous

    Great post. I guess we could also look at the composition in terms of sucrose, fructose etc. When it comes to fructose I think coconut sugar is not too different from table sugar (I need to check). But in moderation they are all OK!
    Popularity of coconut sugar will mean less toddy, so toddy drinkers will soon suffer. 

  • Superf88

    The land needed to expand today’s coconut plantations is found beneath the last of the world’s virgin tropical rainforests. I prefer the rainforests.

    • sugiman

      thats not actually true, the vast majority of coconuts in the world are in decline, if they are simply better managed, and replanted there would be no need for expansion. I believe you are getting confused with Palm oil trees (Elaeis guineensis) vs Cocos nuciefera the coconuts palm. You are mainly talking sumatra, malaysian boreneo where the vast majority of the rainforest destruction is taking palm oil plantations, not coconut oil plantations.
      Also sweet tree being the largest manufacture in the world probably cannot claim their glycemic index for a variety of reasons. but pure coconut palm sugar does have a low glycemic index as i have had friends who are type 2 diabetics eat it with no problems, while sweet trees actually sent some people in france to the hospital. Stay clear of them and stick with the smaller brands if you can who really don’t claim to be the biggest working with almost 10,000 farmers.

  • Dionne

    I have been using palm sugar in cooking for many years, I first discovered it on a trip to Thailand back in the early 90s. Having always preferred brown sugar, I liked the taste of palm sugar when cooking and liked the texture. I couldn’t comment on the health benefits, but if you really must use ‘sugar’, then this product has a lovely textue and gentle tasting flavour. It is great when preparing savoury dishes and they need a little something – literally 1/2 teaspoon can make all the difference to a dish.

  • Itsmejenny

    you know whats interesting – the only reason why i even googled coconut sugar (or i think it was actually coconut nectar) recently is because it was listed as an ingredient in an organic avenue juice. i then found it so disappointing that at a juice joint they would use sugar instead of throwing a sweeter fruit or veg in there. makes no sense to me.
    also if everyone is so concerned and conscious of replacing one sugar with another then i say just eliminate it altogether. i was forced into a gluten free dairy free elimination diet and basically had to forego traditional desserts in the process. it was rather traumatizing initially but i have come to rediscover and reappreciate nature’s sweet treats as not only satisfying but far more delicious than most over-processed things that inevitably, sooner or even much later, make you feel like crap.  
    great post michelle. thanks again + again.

  • Fred

    Really good information….thanks!  For everything except my java, I use Sweet Leaf stevia because it is just the best….taste wise and in the way they process their non-GMO plants. For coffee, I need the  “real thang”, so I go for organic, minimally processed cane sugar.

    And now, that I have this information and I am going to try it. I checked with Amazon and they have Navitas Naturals Organic Palm Sugar for $11.14 (32 oz), which ain’t bad. You get free shipping if the order totals 25 bucks. Here is an excerpt from their promo:

    “100% organic, vegan, kosher, gluten-free, and sustainably-grownNaturally low glycemic index food and contains vitamins and
    minerals such as potassium, magnesium, zinc, and iron, safe for
    diabetics and those looking for weight control”

    5 out of 6 six buyers gave it a 5 star rating….noting its decisious flavor, and even the 3 star buyer agreed with the taste

    Will check it  out….thanks, Michele..

    • Fred

      Smiling, oops……didn’t even bother to look up “decisious”! Delicious!!!… the dude meant.

  • Dbagley

    I have used both coconut sugar for its taste, lower calorie and GI for cooking and occasionally for my tea.  Although, I generally don’t bake, I have used it in blackbean brownies and it was well received.  I love the taste and find it more pallitable than Agave. Stevia is great when combined with Basil in cooking;  the liquid is not bad with hot cocoa, once you adjust your taste buds!   I too, would not feel comfortable using anything other than Stevia if diabetic.

  • CTB

    Bought some organic coconut sugar over the holidays – it tastes delicious, but I have not figured out what to use it in yet. It sort of reminds me of date sugar.

  • 6512 and growing

    Love your blog! Thanks for doing the research so we can learn!
    Also, I was just on Kauai, where much sugarcane used to grow (we bought a stalk for $1 at a local farmers market – tasted like chewing sugar water). Do you know what the difference is (in taste, quality, etc…) between beet sugar and cane sugar?

    • Michelle Madden

      They are similar in that they are both largely sucrose. However, beet sugar is used more for agricultural feed and other applications. There is some good info here, if you scroll down to “BY PRODUCTS”

  • Deirdre

    I’ve noticed coconut sugar more and more recently too.  As a proponent of real and local food as much as possible, I can’t say I’m all over it.  Maple syrup (and/or maple sugar for a granular sweetener) and raw local honey remain my favorite sweeteners. Always good to have more options, but I have a hard time picturing coconut sugar taking over where high fructose corn syrup left off.

  • Egoodapple

    I have used SWEET LEAF brand  (STEVIA CLEAR, liquid stevia) of sweetener for years….and have shared it with many others.  Never have any of us ever experienced any aftertaste. 
    It is perfect for tea, coffee, to sweeten an apple or berry pie. 
    I use organic raw sugar for kombucha tea brewing….and the occasional baked good…coffee cake or cookies.
    Maple syrup is my special sweetener taste treat.
    Balance and moderation in all things is best practice. 

  • Lisa

    Sugar, is sugar, is sugar. If it’s sweet and it’s not green stevia it’s sugar. I’ve been told yacon syrup or powder may be more along the lines of green stevia, but can’t say for sure.

  • Shelley

     I’ve been using it for awhile now.  It tastes great.

  • Melissa Lawler

    I have used the coconut sugar and I like it. I think it gives things a more caramel taste which I love. Do I think it’s safer than white sugar? Not really but I do like having options!

  • Albin

    I have not tried it.  My favorite sweetener is honey.  It has been my favorite for 50 plus years.  Thanks for the information.

  • RoseAnne

    You’ve raised some good points about coconut sugar.  I looked around on the web and found another blogger who said they had found a breakdown of coconut sugar as 70 -79% sucrose, with the rest of it divided between glucose and fructose. Now what some people may not know is that sucrose is a combination of glucose and fructose and once it enters your body it is broken into those two sugars. That makes coconut sugar anywhere from about 40% fructose to 50% fructose.  Fructose does not significantly impact insulin or blood sugar – hence the low GI number. (Agave reacts in a similar fashion because it is also high in fructose.
    What people should know is that fructose is metabolized in the liver and one of the ways the liver metabolizes it is to use it to form triglycerides, which then become part of vLDL – the worst kind of cholesterol. (vLDL does not come from cholesterol you eat – it comes from sugars you consume).
    I would stay as far away from this as I do from agave. My husband is diabetic, so we just keep all sweets out of our house (along with 90% of all carbs.)

  • Farmrik

    Michelle makes good points.

    Yes the carbs we eat are broken down into “sugar”, although glucose , as she says, is a better term. But the “sugar” we are talking about with palm sugar is a taste sensation, not necessarily an energy souce for our bodies. A better term for the carbs we eat is glycogen, which is the way our body store glucose, which can then be readily converted to glucose.

    But that’s a different subject. We buy maybe a couple hundred or more pounds of palm sugar a year, because we sell it in bulk. Not for your coffee, or tea, or baking. But for chef’s and other cooks that know how to season a dish. They want to balance out a dry rub, or a seasoning for meat, poultry or fish with a bit of a sweet taste. It’s pretty healthy compared to granulated simple sugars, although we can debate all night long on other sweetners. I like honey, both dried and wet. And carrots have more sugars than any vegetable other than sugar beets. But some good salt, crushed peppercorns, garlic and such , good cooks like to add just a bit of a sweetner to balance it out

    But if you and your readers are looking for healthy sweetners, have them look for dried blackstrap molasses. It’s the bomb. Or dried raisin powder, or dried date powder. All terrific.

    Another great article Michelle. I hope you still aren’t mad at me.

  • CarolinaJade

    Wonderful post!  I just recently heard about coconut sugar and was wondering what the deal was.  Very interesting indeed!

  • Liz wWald

    Thanks for breaking it all down – great info as always.

  • Jennifer

    What is your opinion on xylitol? We use a combination of xylitol and stevia in our baking.

    • Michelle Madden

      I have no prob w it. It’s a sugar alcohol which has about half the cals of cane sugar. It’s often used for chewing gum and some studies have even shown its helpful at preventing tooth decay.

  • Catherine J.

    Hmmm…. I had never heard of coconut sugar before.  

    However, I think Superf88 makes a very good point.  Coconuts and all their parts (oil, milk, water, now sugar) are lately being touted as the new super food that everyone should be eating.  To my knowledge (which is limited with regard to tropical produce), coconuts aren’t grown in very many parts of the world.  Certainly this new Western demand has to be taxing on the environment, not to mention the resources that must go into transporting coconut products to all parts of the globe.  I would love to hear what information anyone has to offer on this topic. 

    I have a raging sweet tooth and always have, even though we rarely had sweet treats or dessert in my house when I was growing up.  The most helpful method I have found for reducing my sugar consumption came from your previous post about sweeteners… just leave them all out so that our taste buds can readjust to the natural sweetness in our foods as they are (you suggested almonds… it was not until then that I realized that almonds really are sweet!).  I haven’t been able to eliminate sugar in all forms from my diet (one day at a time…) but I have reduced it substantially.  

    Thank you for all of the information! 

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  • Missiefaraon

    what do you understand about using xylitol?

    • Michelle Madden

      Xylitol is a sugar alcohol which does have fewer cals than sugar. It’s mainly used in chewing gum. I’ve not really seen it in other applications but perhaps you have) I would be cautious about using it for baking since I don’t believe its heating properties are similar to other sugars.

  • Maria

    Palm sugar is a natural sugar and is as ancient as honey.  Palm sugar is the traditional sweetener in South Asian cuisine.  It is gaining its popularity in ‘Now’ accordingly to your timeline.  I have been using this sugar for over 10 years after my first trip to South Asia.  It has been my daily sugar. 

  • Gardenvo

    I am not sure if Sweet Tree has done their own GI testing on its coconut palm sugar product, or rather use the GI index 35 for coconut palm sugar from the Philippines food and nutrition department, that is why they put the statement on the packaging. 
    I see other coconut sugar brands claim the GI index 35 even with white sugar added!!!!
    Nice packaging does not equal healthy sugar!

  • Collinlowe

    How come the GI index for coconut palm sugar is lower thatn the white sugar, they are both sucrose?

    • Michelle Madden

      Agree–I think this is why there is some controversy over the claim. My reco is to eat palm sugar if you like it, but no not eat it thinking it’s a free-pass with no/low impact on blood sugar.

  • Barefootnutrition

    great post!  i use limited amounts of sugar in my cooking.  when i bake, i do use either coconut sugar, or honey.  however, after attuning my own sugar palate, i have found that i use such limited amounts of sugar that recipes actually call for.  i usually rely on flavor boosts in baked goods as an alternative to sugar with the use of orange zest, coconut, ginger, or even cocoa nibs.  also, i have found that other “sweet” ingredients like adding fruit, fruit juice, juiced or pureed beets, or even canned pumpkin puree can help off-set the use of sugar.

  • Oneskweek

    I’ve noticed that anything coconut is considered to be sacred lately. I like coconut, but I’ll let a few more studies come out before I eat that much saturated fat. It’s hard to resist coconuts, they are so tasty, but I don’t think they are healthier than other fruits and veggies.
    As far as getting minerals in your sugar, what’s wrong with molasses? I use it in place of sugar, for being less processed and having trace minerals. Plus it has more flavor, I don’t need as much.

    • Anonymous

      You noticed about 3 months late!

    • Summerzephyr

      Don’t let the saturated fat content of coconuts (or other whole foods) fool you! There are many, many sources/studies regarding this subject; here is a link to a wonderful blog on all things controversial in the realm of health – Raw Food There is a lot of in depth analysis on the topics covered and the post on the USDA guidelines is particularly good.

  • Hajee

    I REALLY like the stuff, but i HATE that the sustainability issue is not spoken about too often.  While it technically IS “friendly” in sustainability, evidently if the farmer harvests the blossom nectar for this product it will cut the palm “off”, and it will not produce any coconuts. So, consequently, its reported that the price and availability of plain ol’ coconuts is going bonkers in places like the Phillipines, India, etc.  The PHILLIPINES COCONUT AUTHORITY       (i know right?)  is telling its farmers to plant trees dedicated ONLY for sugar production in order to spare the OLD GROWTH coconut trees.

    BUT – with that in mind – all in all I really DO like this product!  Just bothers me this issue with the farmers sacrificing their old growth trees for it… but what ya gonna do – its here to stay so i guess there will be these issues until they get a “balance” in the tree populations such as the quick growth “pygmy palms” that will start blossom production in 4-5 yrs versus the old growth palms that can take up to 10. 

    SO i gotta say that it truly DOES taste FANTASTIC!  in coffee especially, and I’ve been told by a friend that she baked it in muffins and it was GR8!! 

    ps – we use “Sweet Tree” brand.

    • Luhgasna

      Hey…Its the planet or the people on it. I betch still drive a car, dontcha. Get off the high horse.

      • Gary Rhine

        This thread is ancient. Get lost.

  • Sue Lee

    So…..baking without refined high glycemic sugar is bad? Any reduction in sugar over-load is OK in my book. Also, palm trees are not threatened by the process. Think about how fast they grow compared to, say, a maple.

  • Daerius

    I must have hyper-sensitive taste buds. I can taste Stevia and absolutely can’t stand the flavor. It leaves a burnt-licorice aftertaste in the back of my mouth. Unfortunately, Coconut Palm Sugar has a similar problem. The aftertaste of it is like a burnt-caramel flavor with a kind of greenish-sap finish. It is utterly disgusting. I will stick with cane sugar and honey.

    • GaryJR

      We hold hold shares in the medical industry applaud your decision.

  • em20101

    Sigh. I guess there is no magic pill. At least not yet. :-(

    This is just anecdotal, but I recently made some Paleo cookies using coconut palm sugar and they were better than any “regular” cookies I ever made with grain. But despite the coconut sugar low GI claim, I still felt a little tired after eating them (as I do with cane sugar) and had major cravings for more (which I’d pretty much done away with prior to the cookies).

    PS I have had decent luck with lo han guo/monk fruit as a sweetener, but it doesn’t have the sugar crystals that caramelizes and makes the texture of cookies so wonderful.

  • Benjamin Weingarten

    Thanks for your informative post. Your post will be highly benefited for all. Coconut sugar is totally unnecessary in our diet. It is made from sap. And thank again for your awesome sharing.