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All about coconut sugar

Coconut palm sugar is the dehydrated product of the blooming flower nectar of the cocos nucifera tree. Recently, it has become popular in the food industry for its favourable sweet taste, unrefined composition and lower glycemic properties. This post outlines the health advantages and disadvantages of formulating all of DeeBee's frozen novelties with coconut palm sugar, as well as what this trend may mean for producers.

The Plant

The tree we so often associate with the tropics is known to the people of the Philippines as the "tree of life" for the myriad products it offers. [1] The coconut palm, or cocos nucifera, is a member of the arecaceae (palm) family and the only member of the cocos species. They can grow to a height of 30 metres with leaves up to 6 metres in length. [2]

Each tree produces both male and female flowers, the male flowers being more numerous and the female flowers being much larger. Once the female flower is fertilised it develops a fruit we call a coconut. Typically, it takes ten months for a coconut to fully develop. At maturity, a coconut has a thick band of white flesh and a small amount of water. Younger coconuts have more water and less flesh.

Coconut palms prefer sandy, dry soil and have a high tolerance for salinity, meaning they thrive on tropical coastlines. [3]  They are a hearty and slow-growing tree that can produce between 30 and 70 fruits per year.

In order to produce coconut palm sugar, the flowers are harvested, and their reproductive nectar is dried in the sun.

The Sugar

Coconut palm sugar is a relatively new product to the North American market. It is the product of evaporated coconut flower nectar. It has a dense, sweet taste with a slight caramel quality to it. Less is required to sweeten foods than its cane sugar competitor.

Because of its natural drying methods, coconut palm sugar granules are not uniform and consistent, and there are typically pieces of the plant included in the sugar. [4]

The primary makeup of the sugar is sucrose, and it includes high levels of potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron and also has amounts of vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6. [5]

The Benefits

The antioxidant and nutrient levels in coconut palm sugar are higher than other sugars. [6] Typically, processed sugars do not have any nutritional value, but because coconut palm sugar is nectar reduced to crystals, it undergoes a lower degree of processing. In addition, the nectar and its reproductive quality necessary to create a coconut significantly contributes to the presence of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in coconut palm sugar.

After its intense sweetness, one of coconut palm sugar's biggest claims to fame is its benefits for the diabetic community. However, many of the claims regarding its lower glycemic index have not yet been validated by peer-reviewed academic study.

As an alternative sweetener to sugar, coconut palm sugar is one of the best available. Artificially produced sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose have a long, troublesome history, backed by claims made against them. [7] With the drive to find natural sweeteners, other sources have been located, but their safety is now highly in question. The most extreme example of this is the high levels of arsenic found in Organic Brown Rice Syrup, which is largely used in toddler formula, protein bars and cereal bars. [8] Agave syrup is another natural sweetener that was introduced and quickly adopted into diets without much academic study. There has been a recent backlash against agave syrup and its use because of the naturally occurring high levels of fructose.

More research will need to be conducted on coconut sugar in order to ascertain whether it is a sustainable and beneficial natural sweetener.

The Concerns

One of the most significant concerns regarding the increasing use and production of coconut palm sugar is the deterioration of coconuts and coconut-derived products.

As the flowers of the coconut palm are tapped and their nectar is extracted, it is not possible for the flower to produce a coconut, as the nutritive nectar has been removed from the ovum and cannot provide the nutrients for a fruit to grow. [9] Therefore, if a tree is used for the production of sugar, it cannot yield any coconuts for fruit, flour, milk, oil, husks, charcoal or any of the numerous products that local communities have derived from the coconut.

Studies have been conducted to determine what happens to the nut yield of a coconut tree if the use of the flowers alternates between tapping for nectar and nut production. [10] After the tree was switched from one method/product to another, the decrease in nut yield was 50%. This indicates that it is not feasible to switch the tree from one product to another. Rather, that there should be dedicated trees for each in order to maintain resources for the high demand of coconuts and coconut products.

The Market

If coconut products are to remain a viable option for consumers, attention will need to be paid to the organization of the farms and farmers that produce them. Some suggest that the smaller local farmers suffer from market exposure because of the lacking resources available to them in Asian-Pacific countries (Indonesia, the Philippines and India, in particular). [11]

Recent attention in North America and Europe regarding the effects of natural and artificial sweeteners and the overall consumption of sugar in a daily diet has been the impetus for more products on the market and the near instant reaction to adopt "new things". Artificial sweeteners no longer appear to be a viable option for consumption. [12] A recent study has located the longstanding presence of artificial sweeteners in water plants. [13] After human consumption and excretion, the sweeteners remained largely in-tact and found their way through water systems and into the cellular structure of water plants. What must they be doing to human tissue?

The scientific studies have shown that if sugar must be used, the natural ones are the best for human consumption. In order to develop and maintain a sustainable system of production and distribution for the market, investment into smaller producers will reap many benefits. Many of the local farmers producing coconut palm sugar have the knowledge of a community and familial experience for generations. Establishing a strong and sustainable system of natural sweetener products would better the health of the people who consume them and the financial health of those who grow and process them.

Conclusions

As a relatively new product to the North American natural sweetener market, coconut palm sugar is an excellent alternative to cane sugar and much less harmful than other sweeteners available in the market. It tastes great, and its intense sweetness means that less can be used for the desired taste. It has higher nutritive values than other sweeteners given its natural, unprocessed composition.

There are concerns with the production of the sugar and whether its recent popularity will diminish the availability of coconuts and other coconut products.

Further study needs to be conducted on the nutritive values of coconut palm sugar concerning its glycemic value in comparison to other sweeteners.

References

Jackson, Brian P., Vivien F. Taylor, Margaret R. Kargas, Tracy Pushon and Kathryn L. Cottingham. "Arsenic, Organic Foods and Brown Rice Syrup." Environmental Health Perspectives 120, 5 (May 2012): 623-626.

Kinghorn, A. Douglas, Norito Kaneda, Nam-In Baek, Edward J. Kennelly and Djaja Doel Soejarto. "Noncariogenic Intense Natural Sweeteners." Medicinal Research Reviews 18, 5 (1998): 347-360.

Korir, M.W., F.N. Wachira, J.K. Wanyoko, R.M. Ngure and R. Khalid. "The Fortification of Tea with Sweeteners and Milk and its Effect on in vitro Antioxidant Potential of Tea Product and Glutathione levels in an Animal." Food Chemistry 145 (2014): 145-153.

Litz, Richard E. Biotechnology of Fruit and Nut Crops. Cambridge, MA: CABI Publishing, 2005.

Marinovich, Marina, Corrado L. Galli, Cristina Bosetti, Silvano Gallus and Carlo La Vecchia. "Aspartame, Low Calorie Sweeteners and Disease: Regulatory Safety and Epidemiological Issues." Food and Chemical Toxicology 60 (2013): 109-115.

Maravilla, J.N. and S.S. Magat. ‘Sequential Coconut Toddy (Sap) and Nut Production (SCTNP) in Laguna Tall Variety and Hybrid Coconuts." Philippine Journal of Crop Science, 18, 3 (1993): 143-152.

Ohler, J.G. Modern Coconut Management. Palm Cultivation and Products. London: Intermediate Technology Publications, 1999.

Sia, Jocelyn, Hong-Ben Yee, José H. Santos and M. Khairul Anwar Abdurrahman. "Cyclic Voltammetric Analysis of Antioxidant Activity in Cane Sugars and Palm Sugars from Southeast Asia." Food Chemistry 118 (2010): 840-846.

Stolte, Stefan, Stephanie Steudte, Nils Helge Schebb, Ina Willenberg and Pitor Stepnowski. ‘Ecotoxicity of Artificial Sweeteners.’ Environmental International 60 (2013): 123-127.

Suliyanto, Agus Suroso and Dian Purnomo Jati. "Potential and Problems of Small Medium Enterprise (SMEs) Coconut-Sugar: Case Study in Banyumas Regency, Central Java Indonesia." International Journal of Business and Management 8, 3 (2013): 18-26

[1] J.G.Ohler, Modern Coconut Management. Palm Cultivation and Products (London: Intermediate Technology Publications, 1999), 7.

[2] Ohler, Modern Coconut Management, 9.

[3] Ohler, Modern Coconut Management, 8.

[4]J.N. Maravilla and S.S. Magat. "Sequential Coconut Toddy (Sap) and Nut Production (SCTNP) in Laguna Tall Variety and Hybrid Coconuts," Philippine Journal of Crop Science, 18, 3 (1993): 145.

[5] Jocelyn Sia, Hong-Ben Yee, José H. Santos and M. Khairul Anwar Abdurrahman, "Cyclic Voltammetric Analysis of Antioxidant Activity in Cane Sugars and Palm Sugars from Southeast Asia," Food Chemistry 118 (2010): 842.

[6] Jocelyn Sia, et.al, "Cyclic Voltammetric Analysis of Antioxidant Activity in Cane Sugars and Palm Sugars from Southeast Asia": 843.

[7] Marina Marinovich, Corrado L. Galli, Cristina Bosetti, Silvano Gallus and Carlo La Vecchia, "Aspartame, Low Calorie Sweeteners and Disease: Regulatory Safety and Epidemiological Issues," Food and Chemical Toxicology 60 (2013): 110.

[8] Brian P. Jackson, Vivien F. Taylor, Margaret R. Kargas, Tracy Pushon and Kathryn L. Cottingham, "Arsenic, Organic Foods and Brown Rice Syrup," Environmental Health Perspectives 120, 5 (May 2012): 625.

[9] Ohler, Modern Coconut Management, 42.

[10] Agus Suliyanto, Suroso and Dian Purnomo Jati, "Potential and Problems of Small Medium Enterprise (SMEs) Coconut-Sugar: Case Study in Banyumas Regency, Central Java Indonesia," International Journal of Business and Management 8, 3 (2013): 23.

[11] Sulivanto, et. al, "Potential and Probelms," 21.

[12] A. Douglas Kinghorn, Norito Kaneda, Nam-In Baek, Edward J. Kennelly and Djaja Doel Soejarto, "Noncariogenic Intense Natural Sweeteners," Medicinal Research Reviews 18, 5 (1998): 349.

[13]Stefan Stolte, Stephanie Steudte, Nils Helge Schebb, Ina Willenberg and Pitor Stepnowski, "Ecotoxicity of Artificial Sweeteners," Environmental International 60 (2013): 124.