Can people with diabetes eat coconut palm sugar?
Some people look for alternatives to regular sugar in the hope that this will pose less of a risk. One popular choice is coconut palm sugar.
Coconut palm sugar comes from the sap of the coconut palm.
People can extract the sugar from the palm by heating it until the moisture evaporates. After processing, the sugar has a caramel color and tastes similar to brown sugar, making it suitable to use in many recipes.
In this article, we look at how sugar, including coconut palm sugar, can affect blood glucose levels, why people might choose coconut palm sugar, and whether it is healthful for people with diabetes.
Diabetes and sugar
A person with diabetes should monitor all sugar intake, including coconut palm sugar.
When a person has diabetes, their body either does not produce enough insulin or does not use insulin correctly.
Insulin enables the body to use sugar, or glucose, for energy. When insulin does not work properly, sugar stays in the bloodstream instead of entering the cells for use. When this occurs, blood glucose levels can become too high.
In the short-term, this can lead to thirst, a need to urinate more often, tiredness, and the risk of developing a potentially fatal condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA).
In the long-term, it can result in damage throughout the body.
You can learn more here about diabetes' effects on the body:
Sugar intake and blood sugar levels
Managing blood sugar levels can help reduce the risk of symptoms and complications.
A person who uses insulin must have the correct dose to process the amount of sugar that is likely to be in their blood at a specific time. If they eat more sugar and do not adjust their insulin dose, this can lead to symptoms of high blood sugar and DKA.
People with type 2 diabetes often use lifestyle measures such as diet and exercise to help manage their blood sugar levels. They may also use insulin or other medications to lower blood glucose.
People with type 1, type 2, or gestational diabetes need to manage their blood sugar levels to prevent both short-term symptoms and long-term complications.
Limiting the intake of processed carbs, such as table sugar, is one way to do this. Replacing table sugar with coconut palm sugar can help.
Sugar types in coconut palm sugar
Sugars are present in many foods, whether as a natural or an added ingredient. They give the body vital energy, but they can be harmful in large quantities.
Both cane and coconut palm sugar contain:
- sucrose, which comprises both fructose and glucose
However, the proportion of these sugars is different in cane sugar and palm sugar.
Sucrose is present in many foods. Added sweeteners present in processed foods, desserts, and beverages contain the most sucrose.
Coconut palm sugar contains less sucrose than some sugars, but it is still 70–80% sucrose, according to an article in the journal Nature.
Heating sucrose causes it to break down into fructose and glucose. During digestion, the body also breaks this sugar down into the individual components fructose and glucose.
Fructose is a natural sugar that occurs in fruit.
Fructose is a sugar that occurs naturally in fruit.
Fruits also contain other nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. This make whole fruits a healthful choice of dessert for most people, including those with diabetes.
Since fruits contain carbohydrates, it is important to manage intake when trying to manage diabetes.
Food manufacturers also add fructose to sweeteners, such as high-fructose corn syrup. This is a common ingredient in many processed foods. Studies suggest that, in high doses, it increase the risk of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
High levels of fructose are present in:
- some fruits
- agave nectar or syrup
- high-fructose corn syrup
- foods with added sugars
Coconut palm sugar and cane sugar both contain fructose.
Despite having a lower glycemic index (GI) score when it occurs in fruits, researchers believe that fructose may cause problems when people consume it in the form of pure sugar or as added sugar in processed foods. This is especially so for people with diabetes.
In this article, learn more about the effects of fructose on the body.
Coconut sugar mainly contains sucrose, but it also contains small amounts of glucose.
Glucose is the form of sugar that the body absorbs most quickly. The more glucose a person consumes, the more likely they are to experience a sudden and high blood sugar spike.
Can people with diabetes eat coconut palm sugar?
Aside from its sugar content, other factors that may affect a person's choice of sugar include its score on the GI scale and the other nutrients it contains.
According to the American Diabetes Association, a GI score is:
- low if it is 55 or under
- medium if it is 56–69
- high if it is 70 or above
Some people believe that coconut palm sugar is more healthful because it has a lower GI score.
Consuming foods with a low GI score will not raise blood sugar levels as much as consuming foods with a high GI score.
Reasons for this include the fact that:
- they have a low sugar content
- the sugar or carbs they contain are in a form that takes longer to digest
- the food contains other nutrients, such as fiber, which can slow the absorption of sugar
Here are some examples of GI scores for sugars and sweeteners:
- Coconut palm sugar has a GI score of 54, according to data from the University of Sydney in Australia.
- Honey has a GI score of 35–87, depending on the type.
- Cane sugar has a GI score of 50.
- White sugar has a GI score of 58–84, depending on the type.
- Glucose has a GI score of 96–114, depending on the type.
The GI tables, published in 2008, note the following scores for different kinds of sugar:
- fructose: 11–19
- honey: 58–64
- sucrose: 61–69
- glucose: 100–106
Overall, coconut palm sugar has a relatively low GI score, compared with other sweeteners.
However, while the GI score of a food can help a person choose between various options, having a relatively low score does not automatically make a food healthful for people with diabetes.
The Joslin Diabetes Center remind people that many factors influence the processing of sugar in the body.
- individual factors, such as age and physical activity levels
- the fiber and other content of a food
- preparation and processing
- what other foods a person consumes at the same time
- the rate of digestion
The best option is to treat coconut palm sugar like any other sweetener, including table sugar, by remembering to include its calorie and carbohydrate content when planning meals.
It is also important to check the nutritional labels when buying or choosing a food. Sometimes, coconut palm sugar contains other ingredients, including cane sugar. This will increase its GI score.
However, a person would have to eat a lot of coconut sugar to benefit from these. There are better sources of vitamins and minerals that have other health benefits, too, such as whole fruits.
Inulin is a fermentable prebiotic fiber beneficial to gut bacteria.
At least one research study, from 2015, has found that coconut palm sugar contains significant amounts of inulin. This may help people with type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar levels.
Also, a 2016 study concluded that fermentable carbohydrates might:
- help improve insulin sensitivity
- have unique metabolic effects for those with a high risk of diabetes
One study from 2013 found that inulin provides some benefits for women with type 2 diabetes, including blood sugar control and improved antioxidant status. Antioxidants protect the body from disease and damage.
More research is needed to confirm the benefits of inulin for people with diabetes.
In addition, dietary guidelines recommend limiting the intake of added sugars to less than 10% of a person's total calorie intake per day. This number does not include naturally occurring sugars such as those present in fruits and plain milk.
For this reason, the amount of coconut palm sugar in the diet is unlikely to provide enough inulin to boost the health of a person with diabetes.
Adding sugar to food and drinks means adding calories.
A study from 2018 found that coconut sugar contains fewer calories than sucrose, or regular table sugar, and around the same number of calories as honey.
However, an article that appears in the journal Nature notes that "coconut sugar has the same number of calories as table sugar."
One 4.2-gram (g) teaspoon of granulated sugar contains 16 calories and 4.2 g of carbohydrates, of which 4.19 g are sugar.
High-calorie foods that provide important nutrients can be beneficial in the diet. However, people should limit their intake of foods that provide calories but few or no other nutrients, such as sugars.
People with type 2 diabetes often need to limit their calorie intake to achieve or maintain a healthy body weight. Excess weight and obesity are risk factors for diabetes and its complications.
Eating a lot of sugar, including coconut palm sugar, can increase the risk of mouth infections and dental problems. This is because sugars contain high amounts of fermentable carbohydrates.
People with diabetes are more prone to infections and gum disease. Infections and wounds also take longer to heal when a person has diabetes. They can also worsen quickly, leading to further complications. Gum disease can also make it harder to control blood sugar levels.
Coconut palm sugar, like many other sugars, is harmful to teeth. People with diabetes who consume sugar should be especially careful to maintain good oral hygiene.
There is not enough evidence to confirm that coconut palm sugar is more healthful than any other type of sugar for people with diabetes.
All forms of sugar are high in calories and relatively low in nutrients. The body absorbs sugars quickly, and this can lead to blood sugar spikes and a higher risk of heart disease, dental health problems, obesity, and other health complications.
As one research team explains, "There is no biological need for any added sugars in the diet, particularly those containing fructose."
The authors add, "Conversely, whole foods that contain fructose (e.g., fruits and vegetables) pose no problem for health and are likely protective against diabetes and adverse [cardiovascular] outcomes."
Therefore, people should be mindful of their intake of added sugars. That said, they should continue to eat whole fruits, which contain naturally occurring sugars.
People with diabetes should take care when consuming any sugar, including coconut palm sugar. If they wish to add sugar to their diet, they should do so in moderation and account for the amount of carbs and calories it contains.