The Truth About Coconut Palm Sugar: The Other Side of the Story!
We are frequently asked about coconut palm sugar, and whether or not we plan to carry coconut palm sugar, also referred to as coconut sugar, palm sugar, or coconut syrup, among others. Coconut palm sugar is he latest coconut product to gain popularity, and its place in the market is expanding rapidly. And for good reason! Coconut palm sugar is being advertised as a healthy sugar; low in the glycemic index and full of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. It apparently tastes great as well!
This new success for palm sugar is yielding a high profit for both coconut farmers and retailers in the U.S., as "healthier sugars" are among the new high-demand "health" foods. We are seeing story after story in the Philippines of how coconut farmers are converting their coconut trees into coconut sugar production, collecting the sap from the tree to make this hot new commodity. The process is very simple, allowing anyone with coconut palm trees on their land to easily convert their coconut palms into an instant cash crop that reaps great financial benefits.
As retailers in the U.S. and elsewhere also cash in on this new demand, sadly, the other side of the story is not being told.
What no one is warning consumers about is that coconut palm trees cannot produce both coconuts and coconut palm sugar! When the sap used to make coconut palm sugar is collected from the coconut palm tree, from the flower bud that will eventually form a coconut, that tree can no longer produce coconuts! Think about that for a minute. No coconuts = no coconut oil, no dried coconut, no coconut flour. Is coconut sugar worth giving up these other valued products that come from the coconut??
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.
The price of coconuts was recently at an all time high in the Philippines, and we have seen shortages worldwide in all the coconut producing countries at times. These prices and availability are cyclical, depending on typhoons, El Niño, and other conditions that affect the supply of coconuts. Currently in 2013, coconut prices are down, and exports are up, as weather systems have been more stable with supply down. But world-wide, there are far fewer coconut trees than there were 50 to 60 years ago, when the anti-saturated fat campaign started with earnest in the U.S., and condemned coconut oil along with all other saturated fats. When coconut trees reached their maturity, many communities cut them down for lumber and never replanted the trees. Urban expansion has also resulted in fewer coconut trees in recent times.
Another threat to coconut palm trees reported recently is the plan to make Mindanao a "palm-oil" hub for the world's huge demand for palm oil. A private research group has cautioned the government against turning Mindanao into a center of palm-oil production, saying this would directly threaten existing coconut plantations, the island’s major agriculture export crop. "Massive oil-palm plantations in Mindanao may result to the ultimate demise of the coconut industry where 3 million coconut farmers across the country rely on and majority are in Mindanao,” the report stated. The report also revealed that global demand for coconut oil, although fluctuating at times, has remained constant. In the case of the Philippines, however, the group said coconut production has been decreasing for the past five years. Story here.
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. Also, the quality of the coconut palm sugar will vary greatly depending on the type of tree the sap is collected from, the age of the tree, the time of year (rainy season or dry season), etc. Are there actual studies published taking into account all of these factors? Are there published standards anywhere on the production of coconut sugar from the Philippines?
The American Diabetes Association has correctly observed that claims to glycemic index (GI) are unknown and untested for coconut sugar, and advises: "It is okay for people with diabetes to use coconut palm sugar as a sweetener, but they should not treat it any differently than regular sugar. It provides just as many calories and carbohydrates as regular sugar: about 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate per teaspoon." So until there is further research to back up claims that coconut sugar is different from any other sugar in its effects in raising blood sugar, one would be wise and safe to treat it the same as other sugars.
A search in PubMed for "coconut sugar" produces no results for peer-reviewed literature on the subject, since this is a new product, and not a traditional product. The traditional product for "palm sugar" is from a non-coconut bearing palm tree, Arenga pinnata. The sap from this palm tree can be used to produce "palm sugar" without sacrificing coconuts, but this is not the kind of palm sugar making in-roads into the U.S. market.
Additionally, there is research being done to make coconut xylose, which is similar to other xylitol sweeteners in the U.S. market, and can be made from the coconut husks, without sacrificing the coconut. One such company is starting production.
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 Philippine Coconut Authority in the Philippines is wisely recommending people to plant coconut trees especially for coconut sugar production, particularly the "dwarf" breeds that are shorter and can grow faster (average of 5 years instead of 10 years.) But as long as consumers continue to demand coconut palm sugar at the present time, it is unlikely that growers and harvesters in the Philippines will not wait many years to allow the supply to catch up when they can make a greater profit now. If current trends continue, coconuts could soon be so scarce and the price of coconut oil will be so high that only the rich and famous will be able to afford it.
This is especially true during years where the weather destroys coconut crops in one area of the country, and the limited resources from the unaffected areas pushes prices up as supplies are limited.
There is a reason why the coconut palm sugar is so nutritious. It feeds the coconut flower that grows into a wonderful coconut, from which we get such healthy products like coconut oil! Coconut oil is unique in nature because of its fatty acid structure. Only human breast milk contains similar amounts of medium chain fatty acids. Healthy sugars, on the other hand, abound in nature. The Philippines has some of the best sugar cane in the world, and many farmers are turning to sustainable and organic methods with products like "muscovado" organic cane sugar. And as was mentioned above, there are non-coconut bearing palm trees that can produce coconut sugar, and xylitol can be produced from the coconut husk. So for these reasons, Tropical Traditions has decided not to enter into the coconut palm sugar market at this time. If at such a time the health claims for coconut sugar can be proven, and it can be shown that coconut sugar production will not affect the harvest of coconuts, we could change our position. But for now, there are plenty of sources of healthier sugars that do not threaten the supply of coconuts.
Since we published this article, we have received several attacks against our position. We would like to point out some facts regarding these attacks against our position.
First, the people or groups attacking our position all have two things in common: 1. They all sell and market coconut sugar. 2. They are all westerners, primarily Americans - NONE of them are Filipinos or nationals from coconut-producing countries where these facts are well-known.
If you carefully look at and track the "references" these attacks make against us, you will clearly see that they are all sources tied into the coconut sugar industry, and NOT from scientific studies.
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.
Insulin resistance is being proven by more and more research to be the underlying cause of many of our modern diseases, such as neurological diseases like Alzheimer's, and many forms of cancer, besides the obvious problems related to diabetes. Therefore, anyone who can market a sugar that is "healthy" automatically has a ready market ready to jump in and consume the product, as we saw with agave syrup. We feel the best approach to coconut palm sugar, for a variety of reasons, is to be cautious, because it is not a traditional product that has been in the market place for very long. It also has no industry standards for production and purity. The health of our consumers is always our #1 priority, and if we are going to be attacked for not making a profit on a certain product we are not comfortable with, so be it.
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.