While coconut sugar remains a fairly niche product, sales are on the rise. UK-based wholesale retailer, Naturya, says its sales have nearly doubled in the past year.
"Coconut sugar has always sold well, but this year sales have risen dramatically. We believe that the demand for coconut sugar is on the rise and will eventually become mainstream," said Nettie Wells, account manager at Naturya.
According to David Turner, food and drink analyst for Mintel, this is part of a growing trend: “People are turning to alternative sugars – coconut sugar, apple sugar or agave– because they seem healthier even if they are still 100% sugar.”
A healthy image – that’s all but that’s enough
Producers of coconut sugar – which is made from the sap of cut flowers - claim that it is a healthier alternative to cane sugar, containing key vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients such as potassium, zinc, iron and vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6, while the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Philippines conducted a study into coconut sugar and concluded that it has a low glycemic index of 35.
However, the study featured just 10 volunteers and also compared coconut sugar with glucose rather than sucrose.
Nutritionist Carrie Ruxton also says these health claims need to be put into context.
“Data from the Philippine Food and Nutrition Research Institute, which probably needs validating, show that coconut sugar qualifies as a ‘source’ of copper, phosphorus and vitamin C, and a ‘rich source’ of potassium and thiamin (vitamin B1).
"However, this is based on nutrients per 100g as the EU legislation demands and it is doubtful people would wish to eat this amount - providing nearly 400 calories a day – in order to get their vitamins and minerals!“
And yet even if the Philippine Research Institute’s health claims are considered dubious by their European suppliers - German distributor Kulau says on its website that it is up to individual buyers whether or not to trust the results – consumers are still buying.
An artisan product for lifestyle consumers
In addition to the supposed health benefits, many coconut sugar suppliers focus on the fact that their product is high-end, artisanal, organic and fairtrade, which holds great appeal with the ‘lohas’ (lifestyle of health and sustainability) target consumer.
German company Lotao’s range of Java Kiss coconut sugar is marketed as a luxury product with a natural butter-caramel taste, while Kulau claims its coconut sugar is a “gourmet” product, ideal for use in cocktails and desserts.
Josefine Staats, founder of Kulau, told FoodNavigator: “It’s a bit expensive but then people are willing to spend more money on honey because it’s a natural product made by bees. Coconut sugar is complicated and labour intensive to produce as people have to climb the trees and cut the blossoms.
"People who buy coconut sugar are the kind of people who shop in fairtrade, organic stores – that’s 10% of the German population.”
Coconut sugar is also marketed as being more environmentally friendly than traditional cane sugar. Madhava claims that coconut palms produces 50-75% more sugar per acre than cane sugar, while using 20% of the resources.
For Turner, the growing popularity of coconut sugar is a marketing success story.
“Coconut sugar and palm sugar are basically the same thing but with a different marketing strategy. People think ‘How can palm sugar be good if palm oil isn’t?’ and so this is a way for the industry to call palm sugar by another name,” the analyst said.
Palm sugar is made from the sap of date or arenga palms using the same production methods.
For Carrie Ruxton, however, there are public health implications involved in selling the idea that some sugars are healthier than others.
"I think it is misleading because sucrose from cane or beet sugar is just as natural as sugars derived from the processing of coconut, agave and other plant products.
"All mono- and disaccharides can increase our risk of dental decay and all sugars and starches, apart from fructose, increase blood sugar levels, so there is really no such thing as a healthy sugar. Instead, we should focus on managing the glycaemic load of our overall diets, by choosing higher fibre foods, and aim to eat a moderate amount of sugar within a healthy, balanced diet, ” she said.