By now it’s been drilled into our heads that sugar is bad for your health, and not just because it will rot your teeth. A sugar-heavy diet has been linked to all sorts of health problems, including obesity, heart disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and diabetes. But the sweet stuff just tastes so darn good, doesn’t it? That’s why we continue to cling to hope that we can incorporate it into a healthy diet somehow. Recently, coconut palm sugar (made from the sap of a coconut tree) has been gaining popularity as a healthier alternative to traditional white sugar. But is it really better for you?
For years, a low-glycemic index diet has been touted as the best diet for diabetes and heart disease prevention. However, a recent study published in Journal of the American Medical Association questions this wisdom because it found that a low-GI diet actually made test subjects less sensitive to insulin, and insulin insensitivity is a known precursor to type-2 diabetes. On the other hand, a much-referenced 2013 study that came out of Boston’s Childrens Hospital found that high-GI foods, causing a spike in blood sugar, leave you feeling hungrier and cause more sugar cravings than low-GI foods.
Fancy-sounding sugars (such as rock, raw, panela, turbinado and muscovado) are just different forms of sugar cane says nutritionist JJ Virgin, author of Sugar Impact Diet. Compared to white sugar’s 80, turbinado sugar’s 65 and cane juice’s 43, coconut palm sugar’s glycemic index is 35, so that's not a huge difference. Anyway, as Virgin says, “Call it whatever you like, but it still breaks down as sugar in your body.” Regardless of a lower glycemic number, coconut palm sugar is, like cane or sugar beet sugar, made up of fructose. So, the number can be misleading, according to Andrew Weil, MD, because fructose actually ranks low on the glycemic index to begin with compared with simple carbs. Unlike glucose, fructose is metabolized by the liver, like alcohol, rather than the lower intestine and is then stored as fat or released into the bloodstream.
White sugar (made from sugar cane or sugar beets) is 50% fructose, and coconut sugar can range from 3-9%, depending on the source, but overloading on any fructose-based sweeteners can be toxic to the liver. The American Heart recommends no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day for women (men can have up to nine teaspoons), but it reports that Americans eat an average of 20 teaspoons every day. Check your ingredient labels—sugar lurks everywhere. Once you hover near that quantity of sugar consumption, even a spoonful of lower-fructose coconut sugar can put you over the edge.
Still, you’ve probably heard the additional nutrients of coconut palm sugar being extolled. According to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Philippine Coconut Authority, the government agency that oversees the Filipino coconut industry, coconut sugar contains more iron, zinc and antioxidants than regular white sugar. But, the amounts are still small, and “the overall health differences from any one of these sugars to plain sugar is insignificant,” says Alan Christianson, MD, ND, author of Adrenal Reset Diet: Strategically Cycle Carbs and Proteins to Lose Weight, Balance Hormones, and Move from Stressed to Thriving.
No matter how you dress it up, sugar-heavy diets can lead to insulin resistance—a precursor to diabetes—because all sugars will raise your blood sugar and insulin levels, adds Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, of the Cleveland Clinic. “Maintaining a diet that is lower in added sugars and syrups will go a long way towards prevention and management of chronic disease,” Kirkpatrick tells LivingHealthy. In the end, just remember that, as Virgin puts it, sugar is sugar is sugar.