coconut sugar: healthy choice or diet enemy — 702-25

Shannon Clark, SATI STAFF

If you’ve been reading up on the latest health and fitness information out there, one thing is certain and that is that you know that sugar is one of the top things to avoid. Table sugar – the ‘white stuff’ is often cited as one of the leading causes of obesity in today’s world.

It’s responsible for creating a number of health problems and we are being told to make every effort we can to steer clear. As such, we are also seeing sugar-free products crop up in supermarkets everywhere. In addition to that, we are also being encouraged to seek out alternative options for sweeteners such as honey, agave, and coconut sugar.

You may have even seen recipes before that call for these ingredients, especially coconut sugar as many people believe it to be safe for the ‘Paleo’ diet plan – a diet that is rapidly catching on storm. If you’re an avid user of Pinterest to find recipes, you’ve without a doubt come across a recipe calling for cups of coconut sugar while claiming to be healthy.

But is this really the case? One may start to wonder. If you understand why sugar is so harmful, it may not quite make sense what the ‘health benefits’ of coconut sugar are. Isn’t sugar….sugar?

Let’s go over the information you need to know so you can settle the debate once and for all whether coconut sugar is a smart addition to your diet plan or something that you should be avoiding at all costs.

The problems with sugar

Before we dive into our discussion of coconut sugar, let’s first pave the way with some information about sugar itself. We have been told many times that it’s important we are consuming natural foods – foods that have not been altered by man in any way. In fact, that serves as the regulating guide for many healthy eating plans on whether or not you should consume any given food. Sugar is natural, so does that make it okay?

While sugar is just a single ingredient, the fact is, there are many issues that arise with sugar consumption that you need to know about. Some of these include:

1. Increased risk of insulin resistance

The more sugar you consume, the harder your body is going to have to work to maintain control over blood glucose levels. Since the body prefers to keep your blood sugar levels within a natural range, whenever it moves out of this range, steps are taken to attain homeostasis once again.

This involves the pancreas releasing insulin, which then controls the sugar, moving it out of the blood and into storage (your body fat or muscle cells). The problem with this is when a high intake of sugar is consumed, insulin resistance can result [1].

This essentially means that your cells are not responding as well to insulin as they should, hence you’re going to need more and more insulin to do the job properly. Over time, this can then go on to cause type 2 diabetes [2].

Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition notes that both obesity and type 2 diabetes are common consequences of changing lifestyles (increased sedentary lifestyles and increased energy density of diets), both of which are potentially preventable through lifestyle modifications on a population level. Essentially, you have the power to side-step these conditions if you plan your diet and exercise program right. That means, largely, eliminating sugar [3].

2. Weight gain and obesity

Given the fact that as just noted, when blood sugar levels are high, insulin will be busy taking glucose out of the blood and moving it to storage – most likely, your body fat storage – this is all the more reason to grow concerned if bodyweight is important to you.

We are seeing an increased prevalence of obesity in today’s world with rates as high as 35% of adults aged 20 and over coming in as obese in the year 2008 [4]. Today, nearly 10 years later, those rate are even higher. The worldwide rate of obesity has over doubled in the course of 30 years, so one must ask the question, where will we be in another 30 years?

What’s even sadder is that the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases notes that one out of every six children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 19 are considered to be obese [5]. This isn’t just a problem impacting adults, but our younger generation as well.

Obesity is a major risk factor for a wide number of diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes as noted above, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and in some cases, cancer as well [6]. Too many people look at obesity only as a problem in terms of aesthetical appearance, but really, that’s just scratching the surface. If you are overweight, your health and even your life could be in serious jeopardy.

3. Sugar intake and ADHD

In younger children, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a major cause for concern as it can cause behavior issues as well as learning struggles. Researchers are constantly looking at how various factors may put one at risk for suffering from ADHD and it’s becoming quite clear that sugar could be one risk factor.

Research published in the Nutrition Research and Practice noted that children who consumed a higher total percentage of sugar in their diet, above the World Health Organization’s recommendation of no more than 10% of their total daily calorie intake noted that ADHD levels were reported to be higher than peers who did not go over the WHO recommendation [7].

Interestingly, research published in the Postgraduate Medicine journal noted that one of the leading causes of ADHD is the disruption of dopamine signaling whereby dopamine D2 receptors are reduced in reward-related brain regions. This same pattern is shown in various reward-deficiency syndromes associated with food or drug addiction, further illustrating a possible link to how sugar may be impacting us [8].

4. Sugar consumption and heart disease

While most people think that diabetes is the main condition that goes hand in hand with sugar consumption, we must not forget how it can impact heart disease as well. Research has shown that most US adults consume more added sugar than is recommended for a healthy diet and this sugar intake has only gone up over the years. The daily average consumption from sugar was around 235 calories per day in 1977 and during the years of 1994, it was up to 318 calories. This is almost a 30% increase over what we were eating in the past. At the same time, there has also been an increase in the overall rates of cardiovascular disease, noting a possible connection between the two [9].

When you consume excess sugar like this, not only does it spike blood glucose levels, but it’s also going to increase the conversion of energy into fat in the body, which can then lead to clogged arteries, going on to increase your risk for heart disease. It’s been noted that coronary heart disease mortality is nearly double in those who also have impaired glucose tolerance, illustrating the fact that the two conditions really do go hand in hand [10].

5. Sugar and tooth decay

Finally, let’s not forget the impact of sugar on our dental health. Most people are not going to the dentist often enough as it is, add the addition of all this excess sugar in the diet and now we have a real problem on our hands. Sugar is one of the primary causes of dental caries, which can lead to a whole host of other dental related issues. Research notes that ‘Dental decay is one of the most prevalent diseases affecting mankind today and one explanation given for its extreme prevalence is the introduction of refined sugars, principally ordinary table sugar (sucrose) into the modern diet [11].

Even if you are making sure to brush your teeth and floss regularly, you may not be side-stepping the damage that is being done to your teeth due to this high consumption of sugar you are experiencing.

So as you can see, there are a number of issues related to sugar consumption and this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Sugar is at the root of inflammation [12], which is a leading cause of disease in a wide array of people in today’s world.

Until we get our sugar intake under control, it’s unlikely that we will be able to bypass these issues.

So that brings us to coconut sugar now. Is it any better?

Enter coconut sugar

Coconut sugar, which is sometimes also referred to as coconut palm sugar is a natural sugar that is made from sap of the coconut plant. We have now come to realize that coconuts themselves are very healthy with many great benefits noted from adding coconut oil to the daily diet plan [13, 14].

But, how does the sugar stack up? When we look at coconut sugar from a nutritional point of view, we see that unlike white table sugar, it does contain some nutrients. Table sugar contains no vitamins, minerals, or antioxidants at all, but the same cannot be said of coconut sugar.

Coconut sugar does contain small amounts of certain minerals including iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, so for this reason, it will offer some health benefits. Granted, the level of these minerals is really quite low in regards to what you would find in other healthier foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean protein sources. It’s not comparable, but this does give coconut sugar a slight edge over regular sugar.

What really catches the attention of most people and what leads them to assume that coconut sugar is a healthier choice than regular sugar is the fact that coconut sugar is ranked lower on the GI index. Coconut sugar has a GI value of 54, while regular table sugar has a GI value of 65 (assuming regular sugar, which is made from a combination of glucose and fructose) [15].

The lower something ranks on the GI index, the less likely it is to spike blood glucose levels and the healthier it is thought to be. As we noted earlier, when blood glucose levels are elevated, that’s what leads to the rush of insulin into the body, which can in time set you up to experience insulin resistance and then diabetes. By swapping out regular sugar for coconut sugar, you may be able to side step this. That said, remember that coconut sugar still does have a value of 54, which compared to other healthy food choices is still considered quite high.

The reason it does have a lower GI index than sugar is thanks to a particular fiber it contains called inulin, which slows the glucose absorption in the body [16].

From all of this, you may be thinking that it’s true – coconut sugar is the better choice. But there is still one big problem to consider. When you break regular table sugar down, you’ll come to find that it contains about half fructose and half glucose. Glucose is what spikes blood sugar levels. Fructose, on the other hand, bypasses the blood and moves straight into the liver. Therefore it will not have that same effect on blood sugar levels. However, your body has a very small storage capacity for fructose in the liver, to the tune of around 50 grams per day. When you consume more fructose than that, it’s quickly converted into body fat storage.

This is one big reason why high fructose corn syrup is one of the leading causes of obesity right there along with table sugar. When we consume fructose in high quantities in the diet, we quickly experience weight gain.

Turns out, coconut sugar is not much better. Coconut sugar is made from almost all sucrose, which is about half fructose content. Meaning, it has about the same amount of fructose as what you would find in regular table sugar.

The Sati line

Overall, the facts are clear: sugar is still sugar, it doesn’t matter if it’s table sugar, brown sugar, or coconut sugar. You are still eating a form of sugar and it’s going to have devastating effects on the body, such as what was noted above. It’s vital that you don’t let yourself become deluded by the fact that you are choosing healthy because it has the word coconut in front of it.

What’s even worse here is the fact that when you consume foods rich in coconut sugar, you are still going to be maintaining that taste of sweet foods. This can trigger further food cravings, causing you to continually want to eat more and more sugar. While you may be able to stick to coconut sugar most of the time to satisfy these cravings, it likely won’t happen all of the time and instead, you may find yourself reaching for regular table sugar or other forms of sugar instead.

Remember, sugar is hidden in many of the foods we eat. Other forms of sugar include maple syrup, molasses, fruit juice, honey, confectioner’s sugar, dextrose, maltodextrin, and high fructose corn syrup to name just a few. When you start reading package labels, you’ll some come to realize that sugar is in almost everything that you are eating that is not naturally occurring. This is one big reason why many people have higher sugar intakes than they realize – they don’t know they are eating that much. But when you start really seeking out all the sugar-rich foods you are consuming, it becomes crystal clear how prevalent this is in your diet plan.

So don’t kid yourself. Next time you see a recipe that calls for coconut sugar and is claiming to be a healthy choice, bypass it. It really isn’t going to do your body well or help give you the nutrition that you need.

If you must have foods that are sweet, look into other ways to naturally enhance the flavor of foods and add a touch of sweetness. This might include adding some fresh fruit into your recipes (which contains naturally occurring fruit sugar, which is a much better choice as it’s packed with dietary fiber), adding some cinnamon into the recipe, which is a naturally sweeter tasting spice, or using some stevia extract, which is one of the safest forms of alternative sweeteners that you can use. Do this and you’ll be far better off.