When it comes to sugar, there is no shortage of alternatives to the usual sugarcane-based product many people have become so used to. Whether you’re baking, dieting, or just want to try something new in your coffee, there are plenty of options available: plant-based substitutes like maple syrup, agave nectar, and stevia, or artificial substitutes like Splenda or Sweet’n Low. Today we’re going to compare two delicious plant-based sugarcane alternatives: coconut sugar vs palm sugar. Let’s dig in!
This popular sugar alternative is not made from coconuts, as the name might suggest, but coconut palm trees. This explains why another (more accurate) name for this product is “coconut palm sugar,” as well as why this sugar doesn’t actually taste like coconuts in any way.
Due to the prevalence of coconut palms in the region, this sweetener has been used in traditional cuisine in south Asia for thousands of years.
How Coconut Sugar Is Made
If coconut sugar is not made from coconuts, what is it?
Coconut sugar is made by putting a tap in a coconut flower bud stem and collecting the milky liquid that spills out. The farmers who make this sugar have to climb to the top of the coconut palms twice a day to collect the liquid, which is about 80% water. This “sap” is then heated to a boil in large, open pans to evaporate the moisture until beautiful caramel-colored sugar crystals form.
These crystals may look similar to cane sugar, but they may have more variation in color and crystal size due to their unique processing.
What Does It Taste Like?
While we have already mentioned that coconut sugar does not taste like coconuts due to its origin, what does it taste like? That gorgeous color is a clue—dehydrating a syrupy sap over heat is essentially the same as caramelizing it.
This sugar is known for having a similar flavor to brown sugar, except it also includes hints of delicious caramel flavor.
Because this is a natural product often processed by individual farmers in their fields before being brought to a factory, the taste, color, texture, and even level of sweetness may vary.
Reasons to Choose Coconut Sugar
One popular reason to choose coconut sugar as your sugar alternative is that it is far less refined than table sugar (commonly known as white, granulated, or refined sugar.) If you are looking for a more natural alternative to chemically treated and bleached cane sugar, organic coconut sugar is a great choice!
Another great reason to choose coconut sugar over other types of sugar is that it does retain some nutrients from the coconut palm tree, including iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, as well as short-chain fatty acids like polyphenols and antioxidants.
It also contains small amounts of inulin (a fiber known to improve digestive health and help slow glucose absorption) which may make it slightly more blood sugar friendly than other sugars. (It is worth noting here that any benefits of coconut sugar could quickly be outweighed by detriments if over consumed due to its high sucrose content.)
This sugar alternative is also a product of palm trees. Unlike coconut sugar, however, the sugar usually comes from the sap of the tree trunk, not the flower.
If left mostly unrefined, the product of this sap is called “jaggery.” If it is cooked down further to evaporate the moisture, the result is the palm sugar we’re discussing.
Several different species of palm tree are used in the production of palm sugar, including Palmyra, date, nipa, sugar, and coconut palms. The sugar produced by each of these trees may have wide variations in color, flavor, or appearance.
Some varieties of palm sugar are almost black in color, while others are a very light golden brown. While some varieties have a deep, full, caramel or toffee-like flavor, others have a more mild, neutral taste.
Different Types of Palm Sugar
There is a form of palm sugar popular in India and Indonesia called “gur” or “gula aren.” This specific type of palm sugar is made from the Arenga pinnata, or sugar palm tree, which is native to the coastal and tropical regions of Asia (specifically China, Malaysia, and Indonesia.)
Other types of palm sugar are also popular in Indonesia; their names vary based on the tree the sugar was harvested from. Gula jawa or gula merah (“red sugar”) refers to palm sugar made from the sap of coconut palms. This “red sugar” is known for its deep, molasses-like color, earthy smell, and complex sweet flavor.
Gula aren (“aren sugar”) is named after the tree it comes from—the aren palm. This “aren sugar” is more like coconut sugar in that it is produced from the sap of the aren palm flower bud, not from the tree trunk sap. Gula aren is known for having a lighter color and flavor than “red sugar.”
Why Should I Use Palm Sugar?
First, because it’s delicious!
This sugar has a unique flavor that is hard to replicate. While white, granulated sugar only adds sweetness to a dish, palm sugar adds complex flavors that have been described as being similar to butterscotch, toffee, or caramel.
Despite palm sugar’s unique flavor, it is very versatile; you can use it as a sugar substitute in many of your favorite recipes. It is an especially good “dupe” for brown sugar, due to its caramel-like flavor and moisture content.
Palm sugar is also not processed using modern refining techniques, meaning that it does retain some vitamins and nutrients. (Fun fact: tree sap is filled with nutrients and minerals because it is the “lifeblood” of the tree! When new buds are forming, the sap is what brings them the energy and nutrients they need to grow.)
Where Can I Buy Palm Sugar?
This type of sugar is especially popular in the parts of the world where it is produced, specifically in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. It is mostly used in sweets and desserts, however, there is some use of this sweet product in savory dishes as well.
It used to be hard to find palm sugar outside of specialty Indian or Asian grocery stores, but due to its increase in popularity, it is now relatively easy to find in supermarkets or even health-food stores.
Keep your eyes open for the several different forms this sugar can take; while it can sometimes be found in granulated form, palm sugar is often sold as syrup or in a paste, or in a solid “rock” that may be labeled “jaggery.”
Coconut Sugar vs Palm Sugar…Which Is Better?
These two alternative sugars are very similar in composition, nutritional content, and common uses—probably because they originate on the same continents.
Their Sources Are Different
One crucial difference when examining coconut sugar vs palm sugar is their source.
Coconut sugar comes only from the coconut palm tree and is sourced from the sap of the flower. Palm sugar comes from several different types of palm trees and is sourced from the sap of the trunk.
This is especially important to note, as some critics claim the process of harvesting coconut sugar from the flower bud ruins the palm tree’s ability to produce coconuts.
While the truth is unclear if sustainability is a concern for you then palm sugar is a more ethical choice!
It is also important to note that palm sugar sold in the United States is usually not a pure product. It is hard for manufacturers to meet the demand for palm syrup, so they often “cut” or blend their palm sugar with cane or coconut sugar.
This can make it difficult to duplicate the distinct flavors of traditional Asian cuisine, so keep this in mind when you’re choosing to buy coconut sugar vs palm sugar.
They Come In Different Forms
Another contrast in the discussion of coconut sugar vs palm sugar is their form.
While palm sugar comes in many forms, coconut sugar is usually sold in a granule-like state. This means that it is easy to use in a 1:1 swap for white granulated sugar in your favorite recipes.
Palm sugar can also come in a granule form but is most often sold in a paste or hard, “rock-like” state. This can make palm sugar a more difficult swap in recipes.
If you’re going to use palm sugar, make sure you taste-test to make sure you’ve added enough of this unique sweetener to your recipe.
Much like the differences between coconut flour and other varieties, the differences between coconut sugar vs palm sugar are subtle. Their sources are a bit different, their forms are a bit different, and their flavors are a bit different, but they can easily be used interchangeably when cooking your favorite Asian cuisine.
As a sugar alternative, coconut sugar slightly outperforms palm sugar due to its form and ease of use, but either is a worthy swap for cane sugar. This discussion boils down to personal preference; well, that, and what’s available at your local grocery store.