The sweet truth: The low-down on coconut and date sugars

Scarce data: Coconut sugar.
Scarce data: Coconut sugar. Photo: Anu Kumar

Two alternative sugars - coconut sugar and date sugar - have been cropping up in recipes purporting to be healthier and taking over valuable shelf space US health-food stores, no doubt to hit Australian shores soon. But are they really any better for us than the refined white stuff?

Society seems to have conferred a health halo on coconut anything these days, and coconut sugar is no exception; the internet is riddled with cookie recipes tagged as healthy or diet-friendly - with the main "improvement" being the swap of regular sugar for coconut sugar. This product looks, tastes and behaves in recipes a lot like regular brown sugar, with a subtly distinct flavour but doesn't taste like coconut, per se. It is derived from the sap of the coconut palm tree, similar to the way maple syrup is derived from the sap of maple trees. Coconut palm sap is boiled down into a syrup that is bottled and sold as well, but it is also crystallised to form a scoopable sugar that's an easy one-for-one replacement for white sugar in many recipes. Because it is unrefined, it retains its brown colour and the minerals present in the original sap.

There isn't much data on coconut sugar, but one report from the Food and Nutrition Research Institute in the Philippines notes its content of iron, zinc, calcium, potassium and other nutrients. Don't bust into a happy dance just yet, though, because it's not much when you put it into perspective. You'd need to eat about 25 US teaspoons worth of coconut sugar to get roughly two milligrams each of iron and zinc, for example, the same amount found in a handful of of roasted chicken. Besides, 25 teaspoons of regular brown sugar (which is white sugar with some molasses added back in) has a little more than one milligram of iron and some zinc as well. Clearly mineral content alone doesn't justify switching to coconut sugar, especially considering it has roughly the same amount of calories as regular sugar and costs more than four times the price of brown sugar.

The real benefit of coconut sugar is that it doesn't cause your blood sugar to spike as much as most other sugars do. The University of Sydney pegs coconut sugar as a low-glycemic food, with a glycemic index (GI) of 54. Comparatively, quinoa has a GI of 53 and regular sugar has a GI of 65. (The report from the Philippines noted the GI of coconut sugar as 35, a number often quoted online. The discrepancy could be because of methodological differences and individual variation, but since the University of Sydney uses the international standard method and produces extensive GI data used worldwide, I'm going with their value.)

The reason coconut sugar has such a low GI is that it contains inulin, a type of soluble fibre that slows absorption of food in the gut. Inulin is also considered a prebiotic, meaning it is the preferred food for good gut bacteria and may help foster a healthy gut microbiome. Lots of foods contain inulin, such as onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, and bananas; plus, many packaged foods are supplemented with it, so I wouldn't opt for coconut sugar for the inulin itself. But if you are trying to prevent spikes in blood sugar and want to avoid artificial sweeteners, coconut sugar might be right for you. Just don't use that upside as a rationale to pile it on: coconut sugar still counts toward the daily added sugar cap of six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men recommended by the American Heart Association.

The real benefit of coconut sugar is that it doesn't cause your blood sugar to spike as much as most other sugars do.

Date sugar comes from a different type of palm tree - the date palm - and not from the tree's sap. Rather, it is a granulated form of the tree's fruit: literally, ground-up dates, which are often used whole in Australian recipes touting "refined-sugar free" credentials. (A different kind of sugar is also made from the date palm's sap. It is marketed as palm sugar - not to be confused with coconut palm sugar - and is commonly used in south-east Asian cooking. It's plausible that palm sugar could have many of the same attributes as coconut sugar, but research is scant.)

Because date sugar is simply ground whole dried fruit, it contains all the fruit's nutrients - vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fibre - but as with coconut sugar, you'd have to eat a lot of it to get a substantial amount of nutrition. But at 42 kilojoules per teaspoon it is about one-third lower in energy than regular sugar, and its fibre and potassium content is not insignificant, with 1 per cent of the daily value of potassium and 2 per cent of fibre per teaspoon. That fibre means it also has a low average GI of about 50 (it varies by variety).

Date sugar is made of unrefined fruit (as opposed to the ultra-processed fruit juice concentrates common in many packaged foods), so it is not technically an added sugar. But it is so naturally sweet it can act like one in many recipes. I tried it out in a smoothie and in banana bread, swapping it one for one for regular sugar, and it worked wonderfully in both, although it is considerably less sweet than refined sugar and has a distinctly date-like taste profile that wouldn't work in every recipe. Also, because it doesn't melt, it bombed when I tested it out for making caramelised bananas and for sweetening tea. And it's pricey, compared with other sugar alternatives. 

Although neither of these alternative sugars are the be-all-end-all white sugar replacers for which we might hope, they have the upside of having a more gentle impact on blood sugar and offering at least a little nutritional value. Because of that, and because I enjoyed their flavours, both have earned a regular place in my pantry. But switching to them won't make or break your diet - a cookie, even one made with coconut or date sugar, is still a cookie.

Ellie Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author.

The Washington Post