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Ask the Diet Doctor: Coconut Sugar vs. Table Sugar

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Q: Is coconut sugar any better than table sugar? Sure, coconut water has health perks, but what about the sweet stuff?

A: Coconut sugar is the latest food trend to come out of the coconut (see past pieces on coconut oil and coconut butter). But unlike other popular foods derived from the coconut fruit itself, coconut sugar is made from sap cooked down in a process analogous to how maple syrup is made. The resulting sugar has a brownish tint similar to brown sugar.

Nutritionally, coconut sugar is slightly different from table sugar, which is made up of 100 percent sucrose (glucose and fructose molecules stuck together). Coconut sugar is only about 75 percent sucrose, with small amounts of glucose and fructose. These differences are minimal, though, so essentially the two are the same.

One perk of coconut sugar, though? It's richer in minerals like zinc, potassium, and magnesium than other sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, or regular table sugar, which have essentially none of these minerals. The problem is, if you're smart about your health, you won’t be consuming any kind of sugar in the quantities needed to take in significant amounts of these minerals. Nuts, seeds, and lean meats are better bets for minerals like zinc and magnesium. And vegetables like tomatoes and kale will help you meet your potassium needs—not coconut sugar!

Also, one point of confusion around coconut sugar is its glycemic index rating—a relative measure of how quickly the sugars in a given food make your blood sugar rise. Lower glycemic index foods are generally seen as better for you (though that idea is rather controversial). And a glycemic index analysis of coconut sugar by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute in the Philippines found that coconut sugar has a glycemic index of 35, making it a "lower" glycemic index food—and thus, slower acting than table sugar. However, a more recent analysis by the University of Sydney Glycemic Index Research Service (the world leader in the topic) rated it at 54. The glycemic index of table sugar: 58 to 65. What you really need to know? These differences are nominal.

Ultimately, sugar is sugar. If you prefer the taste of coconut sugar in your coffee, that’s fine. Use what you like—just use it sparingly.

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