Coconut sugar is about as bad for you as normal sugar.
Coconut sugar is derived from the flowers of the coconut palm. It's marketed as a sweetener that's better than traditional choices like honey or table sugar. Producers claim that coconut sugar has a relatively low glycemic index: that's the rate at which the body's blood sugar rises when you eat something. The lower the glycemic index, the less your blood sugar will spike, meaning that coconut sugar (theoretically) is easier on your weight and better for those suffering from diabetes.
Is it true, though? The evidence is pretty thin. Glycemic index isn't tested by the FDA, so manufacturers are free to make claims without regulatory vetting. Glycemic index measurements are also inexact because our bodies process glucose at different rates depending on our individual metabolic profiles. It can also change based on how food is prepared and what it's eaten with.
The Chicago Tribune reported back in 2012 that coconut sugar has a GI of around 35 - for reference, honey hits around 55 and table sugar around 68. The University of Sydney disagrees, however. They maintain an authoritative index of GI values and peg coconut sugar at 54 - right where honey is. According to that number, coconut sugar is no better than honey; it'll still spike your blood sugar, which will lead to a crash and be stored as fat.
The American Diabetes Association agrees: there's no evidence that coconut sugar has an extraordinarily low glycemic index, they say, and it should be treated like normal table sugar if you have diabetes or are at risk of developing it. It has the same number of carbohydrates per teaspoon as table sugar, so you won't be cutting any calories out of your diet by substituting coconut sugar for table sugar.
Coconut sugar has also sparked protests from the coconut oil industry over whether or not it's sustainable. Coconut oil advocacy and sales site Tropical Traditions has a well-argued takedown of coconut sugar: they argue that's it's damaging the market for other coconut-based products and that the coconut industry won't easily be able to pivot back around after the coconut sugar craze is over.
Coconut palm production is also land-intensive: depending on where your coconut sugar is sourced from, the plantations that make coconut sugar may be putting pressure on subsistence farmers already struggling to feed their families.
Possible short-term side effects
- blood sugar spikes
- promotes overeating
Possible long-term side effects
- type 2 diabetes
- heart disease
- may have a slightly lower glycemic index than table sugar