You might of heard of Coconut Sugar, Coconut Palm Sugar or Palm Sugar and wondered what is the difference? They are all names for the same thing. Generally known simply as Palm Sugar in Asia where it has been farmed for hundreds of years it is made from the sap of the coconut palm. The sweet undertones of a good Thai red or yellow curry come from the richness of coconut sugar.
A number of qualities set coconut sugar apart from other sweeteners but the big pluses are that coconut sugar is:
Your coconut sugar is a yellow crystal, similar to cane sugar. It can be used as a straight swap for cane sugar. Unlike processed cane sugars which have no taste other than sweetness, coconut sugar has a rich, complex, pleasant taste. It is easy to use as it can be used as a straight 1 to 1 alternative for sugar. It adds a rich but subtle flavour to cooking and baking.
Being a low fructose sweetener is a huge advantage.
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When you are used to using cane sugar, which is plain simple sugar and nothing else you can get a bit sceptical about claims that a sugar can actually have some health benefits. But true to all things coconut, coconut sugar has a rich array of health-giving nutrients, vitamins and macronutrients.
Without being exhaustive, the list includes:
Magnesium plays a significant role in the structure and functioning of the human body. 60% of the magnesium found in the human body is contained in the skeleton.
Magnesium is involved in a large number of metabolic functions. It:
Magnesium deficiency is associated with a number of conditions:
Coconut Sugar contains 10,300 milligrams per litre of potassium compared to sugar's 25. Potassium is the principal positively charged ion in the fluid inside cells, while sodium is the principal ion in the fluid outside the cells.
Potassium concentrations are about 30 times higher inside the cells than outside and sodium concentrations are ten times lower in cells than outside. The body pumps sodium out of the cells whilst bringing potassium in. This interaction is estimated at using 20% to 40% of the total energy of a resting adult and emphasis its importance in maintaining optimum health.
Potassium plays an important role in:
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
Coconut sugar is a rich source of vitamin B1. Thiamine works with the other B vitamins to convert carbohydrates (particularly) and fats into energy. It is vital in healthy cell functioning, particularly for nerve cells.
In the coenzyme role (binding with another enzyme), it plays a key role in energy production and the conversion of glucose.
The body runs on the fuel Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) and all cells require vitamin B1 to produce ATP.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Vitamin B2 is an essential nutrient with a wide range of functions. It plays a number of key roles in our metabolism, including:
Pyridoxine or vitamin B6 cannot be stored in the body with unused amounts being passed out of the body in the urine which requires that an ongoing supply be ingested. Vitamin B6 plays a wide range of functions in the body. It:
Is generally referred to as Inositol and is not a true vitamin but close to the B vitamin group.
Most vitamin B8 in the human body is found in the stomach, spleen, kidney, liver, heart and brain. It carries out a number of essential functions in the body. Inositol:
Essential amino acids
Amino acids are the chemical substances that make up protein. There are 16 amino acids of which 10 are 'essential', meaning the body cannot make them and they must be obtained from food. Generally amino acids have the function of:
Coconut sugar is a rich source of amino acids, particularly:
Fructooligosaccharides are complex sugars that have a very helpful role in helping the body to make its' own beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. Coconut sugar is a good source of FOS which tends to be difficult to get from other foods (onions is another good source).
FOS has a number of roles, including:
There are a number of great reasons to swith to coconut sugar. Top of the list is your health and the taste.
Coconut sugar is reasonably unique that as a 'sugar' it is very low fructose. The fructose component of coconut sugar is only about 5%. This is compared to cane sugar and most other sugars like beet and corn which are more than 50% fructose.
The fructose content is important because most cells in the body can use glucose (derived from sucrose) for energy, but only the liver can break down fructose. This has a number of ramifications, including:
The other alternative low Glycemic Index (GI) sweetener is Agave syrup (about 42), however Agave is about 90% fructose.
Low glycemic index
The Glycemic Index is a measurement that indicates how quickly carbohydrates break down in our system and raise the level of blood sugar. The scale is generally broken into three:
The glycemic index of the major sweeteners is:
Coconut sugar is a clear winner over the other commonly used sweeteners.
Coconut sugar is a functional food, meaning that it provides a range of health benefits over and beyond simply providing nutritional value.
Coconut sugar as a genuine 'sugar sweetener' is unique in this regard. No other sugar can provide the range of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and metabolism regulating properties that is possessed by coconut sugar and at the same time deliver low GI, sustained energy.
Somebody who has not tasted coconut sugar might be surprised by the complex taste. It has a deep, rich taste that is not possessed by any other sweetener.
Coconut sugar enhances the taste of both food and drink. It is great for baking and one of the great advantages with coconut sugar is it has a level of sweetness to the taste that is similar to cane sugar so you can use the same amount or less in recipes.
If you have tried Agave or Yucon syrup and, like me, find something strange about the taste, and think that coconut sugar might be the same, it is not.
Part of the great, unique taste of Thai red and yellow curries is from num (water) dtan (sweet) beep (squeeze) the Thai word for coconut sugar which goes in all their coconut cream curries.
There are no additives in coconut sugar. It is a natural minimally processed food that is incredibly low-tech and likely to stay that way.
The only processing that coconut sugar goes through is heating to remove the moisture and then granulation to turn it into a granulated sugar.
The coconut sugar that you eat has in fact gone through a lower level of processing than virtually any of the other sweeteners. With the exception of raw honey.
There are a range of people who will benefit from switching to coconut sugar:
Bone Mineral Density
There are a number of studies that show supplementation with magnesium for the elderly results in increased bone mineral density. A number of the studies have shown the effect is more significant for women than men.
A number of studies have shown a link between stroke and potassium in the diet, particularly for people aged over 65. Studies have shown increased risk of up to 50%. A likely factor is the ability of potassium in lowering blood pressure levels and enhancing sodium excretion levels.
Levels of potassium are frequently found to be deficient in individuals who have suffered a stroke.
Bone, joint & inflammation
Coconut sugar contains significant magnesium which makes up about 1% of bone mineral and has an impact on bone mineral metabolism. A decreased percentage of bone magnesium mineral content leads to bone crystals becoming larger and more brittle.
Low levels of serum magnesium (level of magnesium in the blood) is associated with increased levels of bone loss through its association with:
Cancer risk & prevention
High Insulin Level Dangers
There are a range of studies showing a significant correlation between high insulin levels and a number of different types of cancers that include breast, pancreas and prostrate. Similarly there is significant evidence linking cancers to diets high in processed sugar, refined carbohydrates and glycemic loading.
Coconut sugar provides a straightforward option for taking highly refined white sugar out of the diet without needing to sacrifice taste or wholesale rewriting of recipes.
There are a range of studies that show a relationship between magnesium and hypertension (high blood pressure). The risk of developing hypertension has been shown to decrease as serum magnesium levels increased.
There is a strong link between high Glycemic Index (GI), highly processed carbohydrates and white sugar and the risk of heart disease. These foods bring about insulin level increases, which contributes to:
Coconut sugar is a heart friendly sweetener that provides further heart benefits from being low fructose.
Cognitive & mental functioning
Coconut sugar contains an ample amount of the amino acid Glutamic Acid (34.2 g/100 g) which is an important neurotransmitter involved with the transportation of potassium across the blood-brain barrier.
Glutamic acid is commonly referred to as 'brain food' as it improves concentration and mental functioning and is used as a treatment for fatigue, depression and a range of other conditions.
Inositol or Vitamin B8 is the vitamin with the higest concentration in coconut sugar. Inositol is known to have a calming effect and has been used for depression and to guard against panic attacks.
Inositol has also been used in the treatment of schizophrenia.
Diabetes & blood
Magnesium depletion is routinely association with both non-insulin and insulin dependent diabetes. Around 25% to 40% of diabetics have lowered levels of magnesium serum (magnesium level in blood).
Studies have shown that magnesium deficiency is associated with insulin resistance and possibly blood glucose control.
Coconut sugar is very low fructose and there is a body of evidence to show that excess fructose consumption can lead to insulin resistance and then to type 2 diabetes.
Coconut sugar is also beneficial as its low glycemic index (GI) does induce hyperglycemia and facilitates keeping blood sugar levels within the tight boundaries required to effectively manage diabetes or avert the onset of diabetes.
Energy, endurance & exercise
The potassium in coconut sugar helps with maintaining the optimum amount of potassium ions in the body which helps maintain optimum muscle and nerve functioning. The majority of potassium ions in the body are present in the muscle cells.
Muscle cramping is also caused by low levels of potassium.
A significant benefit of sufficient potassium in the diet is ensuring the optimum growth of muscle tissues and the proper utilisation of the energy released during metabolism in a way that supports muscle strength. Muscles are prone to paralysis where the body is potassium deficient.
Healthy Gut Flora
Unlike traditional sweeteners like cane sugar that wreak havoc on a healthy gut flora, coconut sugar supports the maintenance of a healthy gut flora through the provision of FOS (fructooligosaccharides) aids digestion by helping to assimilate nutrients and provides the nutrients that will grow your gut bacteria.
The low glycemic index of coconut sugar means that you are less likely to be continually re-loading sugar into the system which is one of the prime destroyers of a healthy gut bacteria and immune system.
Coconut sugar provides a direct tool in the management of obesity. Coconut sugar is low GI and provides a slow release of energy. This keeps you fuller and satisfied and delays the onset of hunger after a meal.
Combined with a high quality fat like virgin coconut oil people who are struggling with their weight and food control can make significant changes to the cycle of frequent snacking and food cravings.
Glutamic Acid which also appears in a significant quantity in coconut sugar has also been linked with controlling appetite and hunger.
Coconut sugar is a sugar derived from the blossom of the coconut palm, cocos nuciflora. It undergoes minimal processing. The only processing is heating the coconut sap to evaporate the moisture content. The process has not changed over hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Tapping the tree
Tapping the Sap
Harvesting the sap involves cutting into the spadix (the stem with thousands of coconut flowers). Although the spadix has thousands of flowers, only a small number of them develop into coconuts.
About half the spaix can be tapped without affecting the coconut production.
Once the spadix is tapped coconut sap starts to flow from the wound. The sap is collected in bamboo tubers tied around the spadix. The spadix is re-cut on a regular basis and the sap flows from about 35 days up to about 60 days.
The volume collected depends on the age and location of the tree. A single coconut tree can produce in excess of 200 litres of sap per year and trees can produce sap for more than 25 years.
Harvesting in the more mature taller trees is probably a job for the brave, or those at the bottom of the pecking order only.
Into the Wok
As most of the production is carried on in small family owned businesses the heating and evaporation of the moisture happens pretty much as it always has.
The sap is placed in giant works and heated over a low heat. The heating takes place immediately the sap is harvesting otherwise fermentation commences which renders it unsuitable for sugar.
The fresh sap is about 5% minerals (which accounts for the impressive mineral content), 15% sugar and the remainder is water.
As the water evaporates the sap turns to a brown syrupy liquid. To get the crystallised form the maximum amount of moisture is evaporated.