Coconut Sugar is Sustainable

coconut-sugar-palm

Coconut sugar, also called coconut palm sugar, palm sugar, and coconut crystals/nectar is rapidly becoming a popular natural sweetener in households across the US. But is it sustainable?

In my own home, coconut sugar is our go-to granulated sugar. That’s because coconut sugar can easily replace white sugar in almost all recipes without affecting the resulting flavor or texture of the food. Coconut sugar also has a lower glycemic index than many other sweeteners, meaning that it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels as much as other sweeteners do.

Yet I’ve recently noticed a trend. Every time I mention coconut sugar on Facebook, well-intentioned readers will jump into the discussion to let me know that coconut sugar is not sustainable, that coconut sugar is bad for the environment.


Coconut Sugar: Bad for the environment?

Almost all of the arguments against using coconut sugar cite this article as a source. According to the article, coconut sugar production is a growing global menace.

The reason?

Coconut palm trees can not produce both quality coconuts and be tapped for sap for coconut sugar production at the same time.

The result?

A growing number of coconut producing trees are being “retired” to sap production, thus encroaching on the world’s supply of coconuts.

The recommendation?

Stop eating coconut sugar, and instead stick to other natural sweeteners.

Coconut Sugar: The reality.

Now, I’ve never been to the Philippines or Indonesia and seen coconut sugar production first hand. But I have a friend who has — Annette Fischer of Wilderness Family Naturals.

If you know Annette, then you know that she travels the world to find the most sustainable, healthy foods the world has to offer. And you know that her word is gold.

According to Annette, coconut trees are retired for sap production when they get quite old (50+ years old) and their production of coconuts has dwindled. This allows the trees to still be profitable.

Here’s what Annette had to say about coconut sugar production:

I was able to go to some of the farms that create the coconut sap sugar and I noticed that the majority of the trees tapped for sap were around the homes.

This serves several purposes: First, it is important to know that each year more people are killed by coconuts hitting them on the head than by lightning strikes. Harvesting all coconut trees around the house as sap trees makes the yard area safer for the children, family members, their animals and guests.

Secondly, because these trees need to have their sap collected twice a day and all processing takes place in the home, using the trees around the house makes it much more convenient.

Finally, having the big older trees around the house offers shade from the hot tropical heat and it is not feasible to cut them down and plant new trees.

I also saw sap collection going on in the grassy park-like areas around hotels and parks. Here again, I believe it is because of consideration for safety, and yet these trees offer both shade and sap to their care-giver/owners.

While in Indonesia and the Philippines I was able to view trees that have been tapped for over 10 years. The trees appeared both strong and healthy.

In other words, retiring coconut palm trees for sap collection to create coconut sugar is not new. It’s the traditional way things have been done in this part of the world for centuries.

Coconut Sugar: The most sustainable sweetener in the world?

The number of coconut trees that have been converted to sap production to create coconut sugar is still ridiculously small — less than 1% of the coconut palm trees in the Philippines, for example.

And, as Sarah Pope from The Healthy Home Economist points out:

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the World Bank reports that coconut palm sweeteners are the single most sustainable sweetener in the world!

The reason is because coconut palms are a tree crop which benefits the environment ecologically as they restore damaged soil requiring very little water in the process. In addition, coconut palms produce more sugar per acre than sugar cane (50-75% more) while at the same time using less than 20% of the soil nutrients and water for that high level of production.

But perhaps the most interesting thing Sarah reports?

The latest research shows that coconut trees do not, in fact, have to be retired from coconut production to also be tapped for sap to produce coconut sugar.

Yes, that’s how it’s traditionally done, but it’s not how it has to be. It is probably done the traditional way for convenience’s sake, but according to research done at the Davao Research Center and reported by Sarah:

All that needs to be done is tap the coconut sap in the first half of the coconut blossoms and then allow the remaining half of the blossoms to develop into mature, 12 month coconuts. This method for tapping both sap and coconuts from the same tree yields 5-7 times higher productivity than traditional methods.

Coconut Sugar: Healthy, Natural, & Sustainable

Taking all the available facts into consideration yields this: I love coconut sugar and use it regularly in my home.

  • Coconut sugar is a natural sweetener. By this, I mean that I could theoretically make this sweetener in my own kitchen without high-tech tools, chemicals, solvents, etc.
  • Coconut sugar is a healthy sweetener. It comes with a complete set of accompanying nutrients and minerals, has a low glycemic index, and is traditional.
  • Coconut sugar substitutes well for white sugar in recipes. Other natural, granulated sugars like muscovado, sucanat, and rapadura have a lot of molasses flavor present in them. While you can substitute these in for white sugar, they do better as replacements for brown sugar. Coconut sugar doesn’t taste like coconuts and doesn’t taste like molasses, making it an excellent 1:1 substitute for white sugar in recipes.
  • Coconut sugar is sustainable. The majority of the world’s coconut palm trees aren’t being used for either coconut or sap production. They’re already present and waiting to be harvested, and harvesting (whether for coconuts or sap) doesn’t harm the tree or the environment in the least.

The only downside that I can see to coconut sugar and other coconut products is this: they are not local to me. But neither is coffee or chocolate or saffron or tea or oysters, and I happily indulge in those.

Let’s face it. I have a short list of non-local foods that I regularly buy and consume. When I do so, I am totally taking advantage of the current abundant supply of fossil fuels and the relative strength of the dollar.

Your principles may not allow you to do this. Mine do. That’s because I value my sanity. I am a busy woman, a working mother of three, and I can only do so much.

So I compromise with care. I buy organic, fair-trade chocolate. I buy sustainably-harvested oysters. I buy coconut sugar from companies I trust.

(Where to buy coconut sugar.)


(photo by 69er)

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks so much for this. I bought some a while back but then I read how unsustainable it is. Now I feel like I can use it with easy! Like right now in my kombucha!!

  2. Stacey says

    Thank you for this post! I use coconut sugar all the time…both my kids, hubby and I love it! But I was tired of reading or hearing how its not good for coconut oil production and everyone being concerned about using up all the coconut trees! I still used it despite peoples complaints but I am So glad you settled that….we will gladly continue to use it :) Love your blog!

  3. Amy says

    I was happy to read a post about this that actually spoke to someone who has gone so far as to go to Indonesia and the Philippines. I lived in Indonesia for 3 years and also found that where I saw coconut sugar (sap) being harvested it was usually with older trees and was done in a way to be sustainable. We must keep in mind that Indonesians cannot afford to NOT take care of their trees. They cannot do this indiscriminately and just bear the extra expense of getting new trees because they didn’t care for the others. I think many confuse palm sugar and palm oil. Right now the sustainability of palm oil is in question with the thousands of acres that are being converted to palm plantations without any care and being unable to know the cost of that at the this time.

  4. Marguerite says

    Thank you for the informative article. I’ve been consuming coconut palm sugar since I was a kid (in Malaysia), I’m 50. Most of the palm sugar sold there are either home-made or from small cottage industry and very sustainable. I love it in my baking and desserts and recently in our homemade granola.

  5. says

    Thanks for keeping it real! I so appreciate you saying, “you do all that you can do to keep your sanity while compromising with care”. I genuinely feel the same way and it is nice to hear it from another hard working mama! I always look forward to your emails!

    Jamelle Ryan
    A Wholesome Home
    San Diego, Ca

  6. christina says

    I only been at this whole real food thing seriously for about a year. I didn’t think I would ever ditch white sugar completely. I’ve never heard of coconut sugar. I have hope now. Does it do well in stuff like tea and coffee. I use honey for hot tea but I can’t afford that for sweet tea.

    • says

      Yes, it does. But if I were you, I’d look into trying to cut back on sweet tea. Sweetened beverages tend to be the BIGGEST source of empty calories in the standard American diet. It’s good that you want to remove the white sugar and replace it with something more natural! I’m just trying to encourage you to go one step further.

  7. says

    Thanks so much for this article and thorough report on coconut sugar. I got excited when I first heard about coconut sugar a couple of years ago, but then, like many of the people who commented here, started hearing about it being unsustainable, so I am glad to know I can now enjoy using it w/ more peace of mind. :-)

  8. judy says

    Has anyone made a caramel with the coconut sugar? I was thinking I would like to try that for a recipe that called for honey. If you have, could you tell me the ratio of the coconut sugar and butter? And how about homemade chocolate syrup? Fudge anyone?

    Thanks for any insights you might have; sort of expensive to experiment with if someone already knows.

    • Linda Bennardo says

      I have made chocolate syrup and cookies with coconut palm sugar. I tend to use about 20% more coconut sugar than white sugar in recipes with the allotted amount of butter (or Earth Balance, a soy product that tastes and generally bakes like butter) called for in the recipe.
      I tried chocolate chip cookies,replacing both the white and brown sugar with coconut sugar. The texture suffered. But when I just replaced the white sugar, the cookies were better than the original recipe. I could taste a hint of coconut, which complemented the chocolate. I have also made banana s foster with coconut sugar and it was as definitely good in texture and flavor made as with brown sugar.

      I cook with coconut sugar all the time, often adding it to dishes or sauces where I need just a hint of sweetness. I have used it in everything from béchamels to spaghetti sauces to barbeque sauces to sweet and sour sauces, to sprinkled on baked squash (with olive oil and a dash of cayenne) and fruit compotes and glazes.

  9. Vicki says

    I do not buy coconut sugar because, in spite of your article on this subject, I do not believe it is truly sustainable. What happens when the demand for the sugar exceeds the use of the trees you’ve described above? I believe then, that it will become more and more difficult to obtain coconut oil and shredded coconut at affordable prices because those trees will be converted to use for coconut sugar because they will temporarily make more money producing the sugar rather than coconuts for the oil and other coconut products. I really don’t want to see coconut oil and shredded coconut to become something only the rich will be able to afford. We use these things every day and we, (as many others!), would have to give them up if the prices increase because people insist on having coconut sugar. Opinion? Here’s the link to Tropical Traditions’ article on this subject: http://www.tropicaltraditions.com//coconut_palm_sugar.htm

    • says

      Yes, I linked to that article within the post itself. I think that Tropical Traditions is sadly misinformed on this subject, which is why I wrote this post. Their entire premise is that a tree can only produce one or the other (coconuts or sap), when in fact they can do BOTH (and do BOTH more productively).

      • June says

        As you have said, coconut trees do not die when tapped; the whole process is the same as when trees are tapped for maple syrup. The trees are carefully cared for and managed. In terms of maple syrup, the trees still produce plenty of seeds, as does the coconut tree produce coconuts.

      • Leilani says

        In fact, there are plants that increase their production of ‘fruit’ or flower only when the light or watering is cut back. As I read your article on coconut sugar, it became clear that this is true of the coconut palm tree. It does not harm the tree at all. It sends a message to produce more. Of course the native people would know about this. An example is the Christmas cactus plant which will not flower unless it is put in the dark or the watering is stopped for a few weeks. It is science, that the palm tree would thrive producing both the sap for sugar and the coconuts. It is also like pruning fruit trees which produces more fruit. The trees are healthy producing both just like a pruned fruit tree.

  10. Marcia says

    When I buy my coconut sugar, I buy it for the year from amazon by the case. Cheaper & easier on the environment than monthly boxes, gas packaging etc…
    Thanks for the great post!

  11. says

    Sustainability aside, coconut sugar is NOT a healthy sweetener. Better for you than table sugar, yes—but adding significant amounts to your diet is still going to have a net negative effect due to the fructose content, which is almost as high as plain sugar.

    • says

      I see your point. In that sense, no sweetener is “healthy.” But when I say healthy, I’m specifically meaning that coconut sugar is perfectly natural and traditional.

  12. kay says

    I thought the reason palm sugar wasn’t green is because the growers are clearing more forested land to plant the coconut palms, therefore adding to deforestation of the tropics.

  13. Sheena Wolfe says

    I would like to say thank you for your blog. I’ve been following for a while now and appreciate the topics you bring up and discuss. I was unaware of the supposed “unsustainability” of coconut sugar. I don’t use it much but was intrigued by your title so I read the post and Tropical Traditions’ article. I understand where you are coming from but I also understand where they are coming from. It sounds to me like they are just trying to get farmers there, to slow down and not just all of the sudden turn their crops into the bigger cash crop, which seems to be coconut sugar at the time. It’s takes getting educated and patience on the farmers part. Instead of just jumping on the bandwagon, they want their farmers to do the research and get educated about it bc there is a lack of scientific evidence to prove the low glycerin thing and there is a lack of history to prove the production of both. They are protecting, probably, one of their countries biggest cash crops of old from what we Americans can do so well.

  14. Jeanette says

    I have just read the article by Tropical Traditions. They state that they are based in the Phillipines and are therefore well placed to cash in on coconut sugar; however, they choose not to. They also quote information that indicates that, although sugar and coconuts can be obtained from the same tree, the coconut production was only about 50% of that from trees that produce only coconuts. That does not seem sustainable to me. I like coconut and would hate to see a time when it becomes unaffordable. So, I for one will not be buying into the coconut sugar craze any time soon. To me it still seems an unsustainable crop.

  15. says

    Big Tree Farms produces The BEST coconut sugar and is an amazing company that works directly with 15,000 farmers, hand in hand ensuring their livelihood, organic practices, sustainability. Tropical Traditions is such unfortunate borderline blasphemy of self-purportment. Anyways, available only on http://www.bigtreefarms.com is this amazing ginger and turmeric coconut sugar – YUM!!

  16. Jan says

    I use it because I like the taste and texture and know it’s not a GMO as is most (all?) regular white and brown sugar. Most sugar beets are genetically modified and most of our sugar comes from beets.

      • Frederica Huxley says

        Unfortunately, it is my understanding that Glyphosate is regularly used on sugar canes to facilitate drying! So, even though the crop is not genetically modified, it is drenched in pesticide.

  17. Frank McCourt says

    Thank you for the article. Just to correct one mistake, FAO is not an organization of World Bank, it is an organization of the United Nations.

    To Frasier Linde – coconut sugar is not high on fructose, quite the opposite. Coconut sugar is very high on sucrose which is metabolized in a far differemt way from fructose. Typically pure coconut sugar is minimum 75% sucrose but I’ve seen batch reports with 95% sucrose content. And this is pure coconut sugar, not mixed with cheap cane.

  18. christina says

    I actually have managed to drink mostly water the past few months. even got away from coffee everyday. Surprisingly, my husband on the other hand won’t quit bringing sodas in the house. :( I’m hoping I can get him to drink tea at least instead of soda. I don’t want my child thinking its ok to drink soda with every meal. (if at all) but if I make tea,

  19. Vicki says

    After looking back through the comments here, I feel that many people didn’t seriously read the article at Tropical Traditions. They sited many studies that prove that coconut sugar is not sustainable. They have been accused of only trying to protect themselves financially, but in truth, they could definitely benefit financially if they decided to start selling coconut sugar since it is all the “craze” now. I believe it would be a short-lived financial gain, but it would be immediate.

    Here are some of the paragraphs from the article, but I encourage everyone to read the entire article for themselves as well as the sited studies and links.

    “Some claim that if a coconut palm tree is producing coconut sugar, which means that it cannot produce coconuts at the same time, that it can still be converted back to producing coconuts at a later time. However, in Marianita’s experience in growing up in a coconut producing community, she has never seen this happen, and we have not seen any studies that have been conducted published anywhere to back up this claim.
    However, as anyone who lives in the Philippines clearly understands, coconut palm sugar derived from the coconut palm tree is NOT a traditional product that has existed in the market place. It is a NEW product that has only been in the market for a short time. The traditional product in the Philippines derived from coconut sap is “lambanog” – a hard liquor similar to vodka.
    While some may claim that there are some “studies” out there claiming that coconut palms can produce both coconut sugar and coconuts, this has traditionally NOT been the case, and we are unaware of any farms in the Philippines practicing this. The study we cite above clearly shows coconut palms have a 50% lower yield of producing coconuts after they have been tapped for coconut sap after only three months. I challenge any of the coconut sugar producers who have attacked us publically to give evidence of any farm in the Philippines that is producing both products from the same tree. I also challenge them to provide peer-reviewed scientific studies showing that coconut sugar consistently has a lower glycemic index than other sugars. Most of coconut sugar is sucrose, which generally has a higher glycemic index than fructose.
    Sadly, the very short history of coconut palm sugar so far, greatly resembles the history of the agave market. Agave was the darling of the health food world at first, as it was seen as a traditional product, and supposedly had numerous health benefits. It was even recommended as safe for diabetics!! But it is widely known now that agave is NOT a traditional product, but that the sap from the cactus plant was traditionally used to make tequila, also a hard liquor, and that it is no more healthy than other fructose products like corn syrup.
    Before the coconut palm sugar market craze, there were already coconut palm trees dedicated to the production of “tuba,” the toddy that comes from the sap of the flowering bud of the coconut palm tree. This tuba is used to make coconut vinegar, but mostly it is used for lambanog, an alcoholic beverage best described as “coconut vodka.” This is an established market in the Philippines, and you can be sure that for the most part, these coconut palm trees that have been used to produce coconut vodka are not just all of a sudden being converted to coconut sugar production! No, coconut palms that were formerly producing coconuts are now being converted to coconut sugar production, because a farmer can often make more money from the simple coconut sugar production than they can from selling the coconuts to wholesale coconut commodity brokers.
    As it stands now, coconut palm sugar is not a sustainable industry. High consumer demand for coconut palm sugar is competing with increased demand for coconut oil and other coconut products. In 1993 the Davao Research Center of the Philippine Coconut Authority ran a 3 year trial comparing three types of coconut trees: 1. Coconut trees producing only coconuts, 2. Coconut trees producing only sap for the liquor/vinegar industry, and 3. Coconut trees that were switched every 3 months to produce first coconut sap, and then three months later coconuts. Note that a coconut tree cannot produce both at the same time. What was their result? The trees that were alternating between coconut sap production and coconut production had a 50% lower nut yield when switching back from coconut sap production. Study here. Also note that this was in 1993, when there was no coconut sugar market yet. The study did not look at trees that produce coconut sap for longer than six months (which is the case almost 100% of the time in the Philippines), nor did it look at the effect of the nutrient content of coconuts that are produced after the tree was tapped for coconut sap (they only looked at the leaves).
    There are also no published standards for coconut palm sugar production that we are aware of, and many of the nutrient claims may be unfounded. We have only seen one study to date that has been published regarding the supposed low glycemic index, but that study was not in a peer-reviewed journal.
    Tropical Traditions has looked into the possibility of providing coconut sugar to our customers, and there are just too many unanswered questions regarding the short term sustainability of coconut palm sugar products, the quality of coconut palm sugar production, and the impact of supplies of coconut products such as coconut oil, coconut flour, dried coconut, and other coconut products which have already seen record prices in recent times. People in the coconut palm sugar business have accused us of being financially motivated on this issue to simply protect the products we sell, but they fail to realize that with our network of hundreds of small-scale family producers, that we are quite possibly in the best position to enter the coconut palm sugar market and profit even more from it than the current suppliers. So this is not a financial position for us at all.
    The owners and founders of Tropical Traditions are from the Philippines, and Marianita Shilhavy is Filipina, grew up on a coconut plantation, and is trained in nutrition with a B.S. in diet and nutrition from the Philippines. So please consider carefully the claims of coconut palm sugar, most of which are coming from westerners earning a profit from coconut palm sugar and have never lived in the countries where it is produced, but simply reading information on the Internet. Also consider the fact that we are certainly in a position to offer this product as well, having our base of operation in the Philippines, but have chosen to not cash in on the profits in this growing new market. We do not earn any profit by providing you this information, which is the other side of the story on coconut palm sugar. Our motivation is simply to present the truth that is not being told from other sources.” http://www.tropicaltraditions.com/coconut_palm_sugar.htm

    I, for one, will not be indulging in the coconut sugar. Coconut oil has helped me overcome some serious health problems in my life, and I can’t imagine a day without it – for now, I can afford it, but if they start converting too many of the trees to use for sugar, who knows?

    Again, I encourage you all to read the article from Tropical Traditions in its entirety.

  20. Mary Light via Facebook says

    It’s still sugar. What do you mean by sustainable- providing economic growth for small demographics? It’s probably not with habitat loss, mainly through development and secondarily through weather stress in the regions they grow best , or used to (Maya Riveria comes to mind).

  21. Margie Rice Williams via Facebook says

    I have honey, maple syrup, molasses, stevia, coconut sugar and pure cane sugar.

  22. Lynn Brown Andreas via Facebook says

    If we are really looking for sustainable, then, yes, we have to consider if the product is local. If not, is there a local source than would be better? Truly, if one is concerned about glycemic index, then all sugars would be limited, not just substituting one for another at a higher cost.

  23. says

    Sorry, but I don’t buy it. I spend a lot of time in the tropics and this is an erroneous and simplistic rationalization. Yes, garden trees may be used like this, but the majority of commercial palm sugar is pulling a 60 year shortage cycle into a critical stage by changing use from fruit to the more profitable sugar. You have to look ahead a few years and anticipate demand for both products and the economics of harvesting and distribution to get an idea of why the problem is arising.
    As you said, you have not been there but you form an opinion based on the word of someone who seems to be naive and unfamiliar with the reality of sugar commodity production.

  24. Jodie says

    How you can say harvesting all these “untouched” trees is not harmful is beyond me!! You don’t even mention the wild life that is maimed and killed because “they’re in the way” of this harvesting. You should know an entire subject before making any statements!

  25. says

    First, coconut sugar and palm sugar are not the same thing as palm sugar comes from other trees like the date, sago, palmyra and sugar palm trees.
    Second, making definitive statements based on the word of someone else who has not been everywhere in the industry, is risky.
    You used the word sustainable, but leaving aside the tree problem, coconut sugar is is boiled down using large amounts of fuel in very inefficient methods on the small scale, and large amounts of fossil fuel on the larger scale reduction kettles.
    Third, the glycemic index test referred to, was a flawed comparison between an aqueous form of coconut sugar and just crystalline sugar.
    Fourth, you quote the article from Tropical Traditions and say that their claims are not valid despite the fact they actually are living and working in the Philippines, not just visiting and they do give a link to about the only study on coconut palm production.
    http://www.cabi.org/gara/FullTextPDF/2009/20093019409.pdf

    I think you may want to cut out the crap.

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