Coconut Sugar: What Is It, and Is It Good for You?

STACK Expert Katie Moore discusses the nutrition profile of coconut sugar and what it offers to athletes.

Coconut sugar is one of the newest sweeteners to show up in grocery stores. It is a minimally processed natural sugar made from dried coconut palm nectar. It has a sweet flavor with a hint of caramel taste, similar to brown sugar. Color and flavor vary depending on the species of the tree and the methods used during harvesting.

Sugar from coconut palm trees is less refined than white or brown sugar and retains trace nutrients of calcium, iron, potassium and zinc. It also provides small amounts of short chain fatty acids, antioxidants, polyphenols and flavonoids—hardly enough to contribute to your daily value, but more than you get in the regular white stuff, which is an advantage.

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Coconut sugar also contains inulin, a fiber that slows glucose absorption, so it has a lower glycemic index than white or brown sugar. Glycemic index is a measure of how quickly a food raises a person's blood sugar level. Coconut sugar has a glycemic index of 35, whereas white sugar is much higher with a glycemic index of 60.

For the average person, low glycemic is a good thing to help control blood sugar and prevent spikes and "sugar highs." If you're an athlete, low glycemic is beneficial when you are not exercising, but when you are about to fuel up for a competition or are in the middle of an endurance race, regular sugar becomes your friend. Athletes need simple carbohydrates to keep their blood sugar elevated, since this is the preferred source of fuel during exercise.

So, short answer—save the coconut sugar for nonathletic activities. But read labels: coconut palm sugar is sometimes mixed with cane sugar for a cheaper product.

Coconut sugar also has an edge because it's low in fructose. Fructose is undesirable for athletes, because the muscles don't use it, and only the liver can break it down. Also, when you're at rest, fructose converts to fat more quickly. You should not consume large amounts of fructose other than what you find naturally in fruit.

Coconut sugar is comprised of about 71 percent sucrose, 3 percent pure glucose, and 3 percent fructose. Other nutrients, inulin, and phytonutrients make up the remaining percentages. Table sugar is 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose, and agave nectar is a whopping 90 percent fructose. The distribution of molecules creates different effects on the body during rest and during training.

The glycemic index and bioavailability of foods varies from person to person. All sugar has around 15 calories per teaspoon. Use it in moderation as a treat or as part of your training program. It's not a healthy food you need to consume every day.

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