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.
Coconut palm trees can not produce both quality coconuts and be tapped for sap for coconut sugar production at the same time.
A growing number of coconut producing trees are being “retired” to sap production, thus encroaching on the world’s supply of coconuts.
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.
(photo by 69er)