The Truth about Coconut Sweeteners

by Ben Ripple, Co-Founder and CEO of Big Tree Farms Bali.

Coconut sweeteners are an incredible alternative to the status quo of highly refined, health damaging, industrial sugar options. Cane, beet, corn, agave: these are the major players in global sweeteners and the vast majority of their impact on human health is negative. For those of us that have no intention of completely throwing sugars out the window (and I think that’s almost everyone), it’s time we understood the incredible opportunity that coconut sweeteners offer for shifting our relationship with sugar towards a healthier light.

 the truth about coconut sweeteners

Refined vs Whole Form

First off, coconut sweeteners are produced from fresh, high nutrient coconut tree flower sap. Big Tree Farms Coconut Sugar is never refined; in contrast, most cane sugar (table sugar, turbinado, caster sugar, powder sugar, brown sugar), beet sugar, corn sugar and agave are all refined significantly. Refined means is that the product is no longer in its “whole” state. And these various refining processes, which alter a product from its whole state, also tend to have the added effect of sacrificing health benefits for various marketable characteristics. Purity, for example, is one such marketable characteristic. Pure sucrose, which is one of the sugars found naturally in sugar cane, beet and coconut sap, is not something you find in a pure form in nature- it doesn’t grow on a tree. Rather, it is part of a whole in nature; in fresh sugar cane there are a multitude of minerals, gums, fibers and sweeteners. However, with the exception of sucrose, all of these other compounds are removed during refining to create processed table sugar.

Big Tree Farms’ coconut sweeteners are never refined and always exist in their whole form. And this whole food sweetener is far better for your body than a refined alternative. Is the sweetener as nutrient dense as a bowl full of kale? Of course not, but it’s important that we always choose foods which provide more than simply empty calories. Coconut sweeteners have a more impressive nutrient profile than any other sweetener.


Glycemic Index Unravelled

Beyond the nutritional benefit that unrefined coconut sweeteners offer, there’s another reason to celebrate. The unrefined character of the sweetener changes the way the human body digests the meal. This is the discussion of glycemic index or the measurement of how quickly a food product is absorbed into the human bloodstream. The theory of glycemic index goes like this: the faster a food ingredient (think table sugar, which is high glycemic) is digested by our body, the faster that food converts to energy, but too much energy at one time is bad because we can’t use it all. The excess energy is then turned into fat, stored as fat and we then quickly become hungry again. A nasty cycle.

The good news is that coconut sweeteners perform better than other sweeteners at providing usable, slower release energy that the body can handle. To document this, every 3 months at Big Tree Farms we test a random sample of our coconut sweeteners with an internationally accredited 3rd party lab; the results consistently come back showing a low glycemic index. What this means is that the rate at which our bodies break down Big Tree Farms coconut sweeteners is slow, relative to most other sucrose-based sweeteners.

 Coconut blossoms

So Why All The Fuss?

So perhaps (for those of you that are particularly good students and have done your homework) you’re wondering why it is that you have read conflicting reports about the low glycemic claim as it pertains to coconut sweeteners. Well, to get to the bottom of this confounding question we need to better understand the argument against coconut sweeteners being low glycemic, and for that we need to understand the sweetener industry.

Sugar is an industrial product and it is considered in terms of purity. Table sugar is a 99.9% pure source of sucrose. Other versions of refined cane sugar maintain varying degrees of purity, but all of the refined sweeteners are defined relative to their degree of purity. What this means is that when a sugar industry scientist or professional speaks out about the capacity of coconut “sugar” to be low glycemic, they are speaking from the perspective of sucrose. When I recently asked a staff member of a major US sugar company what they felt about low glycemic coconut “sugar”, their response was this, “Impossible. Sucrose is sucrose is sucrose. It’s a molecule and it fundamentally cannot be different, regardless of where you find it. And if it structurally is the same, then it will always react the same in relation to the human body.” I agree 100%. But then, that wasn’t my question. This is the problem with the discussion around sugar and glycemic index. Sucrose has a relatively consistent glycemic index rating, depending on the product’s purity and the individual test subject. But coconut sweeteners are not sucrose; they simply contain sucrose and admittedly a majority of it. But it is the minority at play, which affects (or perhaps the proper word would be “buffers”) the sweetener’s process of absorption into the human bloodstream.


The Apple Effect

Here’s another way to think about it. Think of a juicy organic apple. It’s a rare doctor that will caution a consumer from eating organic apple, but more and more the medical industry is raising alarm bells about the severe risk of overconsumption of fructose. So why, if fructose in soda is linked directly to obesity and liver damage, is there no direct scientific evidence of this occurring when your children munch on fresh apples?   The answer is that the fructose in apples (and other fruit) is bound to other sugars, nutrients, fibers etc, which all affect how the fructose itself is broken down by the body. Again, as was the case above with sucrose, fructose acts exactly like fructose in the human body only when it is pure. But when the same sweetener is bound to other compounds, the net effect is a change in the process (or timing) of the breakdown in the human body. This simple “Apple Effect” is exactly the same process at play when we consider the glycemic index of coconut sweeteners. Since coconut sweeteners are a whole food sweetener with many different compounds, the effect on how our body handles this sweetener is very different from table sugar. Specifically, the effect is to slow the process by which coconut sugar is digested and the result is a much more useable form of slow release energy.

 coconut sweetener

So by now you should be a believer. Coconut sweeteners offer a powerful opportunity to shift our sweetening habits away from health depleting, industrial “quality” sugars and towards a more holistic whole food sweetening philosophy. There is simply no reason not to give coconut sweeteners a try at home. It’s a simple “get ready for the holiday splurge” health resolution that is both healthy for the human body and absolutely, positively delicious.


And if you want to learn more about the incredible environmental benefits of coconut sweeteners stay tuned for the next blog post.