Coconut sugar is an all-natural sweetener derived from the sap of coconut palm flowers. Most coconut sugar is made and consumed in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, and in Sri Lanka. It's often used as a substitute for processed, refined, and artificial sweeteners. The main benefit of this ingredient, and what makes it stand out from other sugars, is the way it reacts to blood sugar—a dose of coconut sugar won't cause a spike as high as typical sugar. However, coconut sugar isn't a true health food. It's still a sugar even if it has more nutrients than its counterparts.
- Place of Origin: Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia
- Other Names: Javanese sugar, coconut palm sugar, red sugar, malacca sugar, gula melaka
- Varieties: Crystalized, granules, syrup, blocks
What Is Coconut Sugar?
As the name suggests, coconut sugar comes from the coconut tree and is a type of palm sugar harvested from the sap of the plant's flowers. The process of removing coconut sap is similar to how maple syrup is taken from trees, and both are clear liquids that get cooked down into a brown syrup. Through this process, coconut sugar develops a toasty, caramel-like flavor similar to brown sugar. The resulting syrup is bottled as is, pressed into blocks, or crystalized to give the food a texture more like refined sugar.
In the United States, coconut sugar has made the health food scene as a substitution for refined sugars, including white and brown. The ingredient has been shown to have more nutrients but it packs just as many calories. Regardless of its origin, coconut sugar is still a sugar. In fact, it's so much like refined sugars that coconut sugar can be swapped out using a one-to-one ratio.
Other sweeteners like date sugar and honey are also natural and are often compared to coconut sugar even though the former comes from fruit and the latter from bees. Date sugar, which is also derived from a palm tree, is made by grinding up the date palm fruits and drying it out into granules. It's very sweet and contains the fiber and nutrients from the dates. Raw honey, which is made by bees, has antioxidants and is often used as a soothing cold treatment. While these natural sugars have benefits, no one is more healthy than the other.
Coconut Sugar vs. Brown Sugar
Flavor-wise, coconut sugar tastes the most like brown sugar. Both have a caramel-like flavor and a tawny hue and they can mostly be used interchangeably. Brown sugar, which is made of refined white sugar with molasses added, has more moisture than coconut sugar, making it better for certain baking recipes. Coconut sugar gets its deep brown color and flavor due to cooking and has no other ingredients added to it. Another difference: coconut sugar costs about three times more than brown sugar.
Coconut Sugar Uses
Use crystalized coconut sugar anywhere refined white or brown sugar is used. Liquid coconut sugar can be used in lieu of other syrups derived from corn, agave, and maple. This means coconut sugar is good in cakes, cookies, sprinkled on top of granola, mixed into a parfait, used in sauces, and any other method where regular sugar finds its way into foods. To use coconut sugar as a substitute for white or brown sugar, simply measure it at a one-to-one ratio.
How To Cook With Coconut Sugar
While coconut sugar can be used as a substitute for white or brown sugar, it's not always the perfect sweetener due to the size of granules (which can be ground) and its lower burning temperature. This doesn't necessarily matter if you are making something like banana bread or adding to chia seed pudding, but it can affect candy recipes that rely on slow cooking temperatures and foods that need the extra moisture usually found by using brown sugar.
The general rule when cooking with coconut sugar is to measure it out in the same quantity of white or brown sugar in a recipe. It's a darker sugar, so don't use it when the baked good needs to maintain a pale color, like in an angel food cake.
What Does It Taste Like?
Plain coconut sugar tastes a lot like brown sugar—sweet, dark, and with notes of toffee and caramel. Despite its name and origin, coconut sugar does not taste like coconut at all.
Coconut Sugar Recipes
Try substituting coconut sugar for the sweetener called for in these recipes and similar dishes. It's easy to do using a one-to-one swap for white and brown sugar.
Where To Buy Coconut Sugar
There are quite a few brands of coconut sugar out there including BetterBody Foods, Wholesome Sweeteners, Madhava, Food to Live, and Terrasoul Superfoods. These are the best brands available and all sell granule coconut sugar, which is ideal when using when substituting for other sugars. Find these products in specialty grocers or health food stores or order online. When shopping for coconut sugar, make sure the packaging says either "coconut sugar" or "coconut palm sugar" in the ingredients—regular palm sugar is not the same thing.
Coconut sugar should remain completely dry and in a sealed container. You can store it at room temperature in a cool, dry place for up to a year. If the coconut sugar is in block form, keep it in a cool part of the pantry in an air-tight container so it doesn’t dry out.
Nutrition and Benefits
Research has found that coconut sugar contains iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, making it more nutritionally valuable than refined sugar. But, even though there are traces of these nutrients, one would need to eat 25 teaspoons of coconut sugar in order to get a significant amount, and the calorie count and actual sugar intake would negate the benefits. One thing coconut sugar does contain that's helpful is inulin, a type of soluble fiber that slows the absorption of food in the stomach and helps good gut bacteria grow.
Though coconut sugar is a low-glycemic food and doesn't cause blood sugar to spike as much as other sugars do, it's still not an approved food for diabetics. In fact, the American Diabetes Association says coconut sugar should be treated just like regular sugar due to the amount of calories and carbohydrates.
Asghar, M. T., Yusof, Y. A., Mokhtar, M. N., Ya'acob, M. E., Mohd Ghazali, H., Chang, L. S., & Manaf, Y. N. (2019). Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) sap as a potential source of sugar: Antioxidant and nutritional properties. Food science & nutrition, 8(4), 1777–1787.