Update: Natural & Alternative Sugars

by Catherine Haug, October 2, 2011

There’s a newish sugar-based sweetener on the block: coconut crystals and coconut nectar. These are not made from the coconut nut (the part which is the source of coconut meat and milk), but rather from the sap of the sago palm tree (coconut palm).

The method for extracting the sap and making the sugar/nectar is similar to that used for maple and birch trees, which will be discussed at the upcoming October 2011 gathering: Sugar Tapping of Birch & Maple Trees, by Kathie Lapcevic. Birch sap yields a sweetener known as xylitol.

In addition, there is new information on the health issues posed by agave nectar for those who are pre-diabetic, diabetic, insulin resistant, or diagnosed with metabolic syndrome.

Coconut Crystals

As mentioned above, coconut crystals are derived from the sap, not the nut. According to Nature’s Blessings: Coconut Sugar, it is comprised roughly 12 – 18% sugars, of which almost 90% is sucrose (table sugar), and about 4% is a 1:1 mix of glucose and fructose.

The crystals are high in vitamins, amino acids and other nutrients which together comprise the majority of its content. This high level of other nutrients is the reason this sweetener  has a low glycemic index (GI) of 35. Glycemic index is a measure of how quickly a substance raises blood sugar in healthy individuals.  For reference, the GI of sucrose (table sugar) is 68, and of glucose (blood sugar) is 100.

However, coconut palms do not grow here in the Flathead, so this is not a local food. We must rely on distant processors to produce the sugar.


This natural sweetener, related to sugar, is a sugar alcohol present in several foods including berries, but its predominant source is the bark of white birch trees or corn cobs. It has a very low glycemic index of 7, and about 2/3 the calories of table sugar.

While xylitol can be extracted from the sap of white birch, the commercial process used today involves harvesting the trees as a “renewable resource.” The debate continues, however, as to whether trees are a truly renewable resource, as they cannot be grown and harvested over and over indefinitely.

The process of tapping our own native white birches (as will be presented in the upcoming October 2011 gathering: Sugar Tapping of Birch & Maple Trees), yields xylitol as the predominant sweetener in the sap, without destroying the tree. The sap, like coconut sap, is also rich in proteins and other nutrients.

Update on Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is touted as a natural sugar with a low glycemic index and so assumed to be safe for those with blood sugar issues.

However, the Glycemic Research Institute in its Agave Report in its Agave Report has recently declared agave nectar as unsafe for people with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and pre-diabetes. This is because of the way its primary sugar, fructose, is metabolized. HFCS is likewise not considered safe for people with blood sugar issues.

I would not recommend agave nectar for anyone, as it has been shown to induce insulin resistance in those that had not been insulin resistant prior to using agave.



Comments are closed.