The Sweet Facts on Palm Sugar
Are there any benefits to using palm sugar (also known as coconut sugar) as your go-to sweetener? I’m sharing my best nutrition advice.
One of today’s hottest trends is to use alternative sweeteners in everything, from packets in your morning tea to prepared beverages to home-baked desserts. One of the darlings of the “naturally sweet” market is palm sugar (also known as coconut sugar), which was introduced into the sweetener market in the U.S. and has quickly gained popularity. However, palm sugar has been used historically in parts of Asia for some time, so it’s really not that new.
Derived from sugar palm and coconut palm trees, palm sugar is a common ingredient in the cuisine of Southeast Asia, where it is also cultivated. The difference between coconut palm sugar and palm sugar is the tree that the sap comes from. The traditional method of making palm sugar starts with climbing to the top of a swaying palm in order to collect the watery sap from cut flower buds, which is kettle-boiled into a sticky sugar with a subtly sweet flavor.
In Southeast Asia, palm sugar is a soft, honey-like sweetener sold in jars or light brown cakes, which are grated into foods and dishes, such as curries, sauces or desserts. Here in markets you can find palm sugar in bags, just as you would brown sugar. In fact, palm sugar, with its light brown granules and caramel taste, can be used in place of brown sugar in most any recipe.
So are there any potential benefits? Many purveyors of palm sugar claim it’s a “sweetener without the guilt,” but there’s little research to support any health benefits. Researchers analyzed 14 different cane and palm sugars and found that unrefined palm sugar is higher in antioxidants than refined cane sugars, according to a study in Food Chemistry; however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that those antioxidant benefits will be seen in the human body. Another study found that palm sugar contains inulin, which has been shown to help control blood sugar. Much has been made about palm sugar’s low glycemic index (GI, a ranking of how carbohydrates impact blood glucose levels). Although the GI for palm sugar is not included in the University of Sydney’s GI Database, the largest database of GI food values in the world, palm sugar makers report that its GI is 35, compared with honey at 55 and table sugar at 68. Yet palm sugar contains roughly the same amount of calories and sugar—about 15 calories and 3 grams of sugar per teaspoon. Palm sugar contains around 3-9% of sucrose, as compared to cane sugar that is 50% sucrose. While we’re waiting to learn more about palm sugar and its health outcome, it’s best to limit this form of sugar—just like you would any type of sweetener—in your diet.
Claims also have been made about palm sugar’s sustainability. According to the traditional, small scale style of agriculture, the trees can produce sap for about 20 years with relatively small inputs of resources, such as water and fuel, in order to produce sugar. The bottom line: Go ahead and enjoy palm sugar’s caramel-sweetness in foods; just remember to use it in small amounts, as you would any sugar.
For other blogs on sweeteners and health, check out these:
Written by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN on August 27, 2013; updated on July 24, 2019.