Coconut palm sugar (aka palm sugar, coconut sugar) and all affiliated products (coconut syrup) are not as sustainable and healthy as you have been led to believe! At this point we have heard great things about coconuts and how healthy they are so it would stand to reason that coconut by-products would also be healthy too! It should come as little surprise that coconut palm by-products like coconut syrup, coconut sugar, and so on have been discussed and represented as “low glycemic” healthy, sugar alternatives keeping in line with the truly miraculous properties of their fruits and fruit oils.
However, just like agave syrup, these claims of healthy sugars are grossly misrepresented and inflated for profits not backed by research. Of course the FDA hasn’t validated even worthy claims on healing herbs but science has shown that while palm sugar comes from a natural source, it really isn’t better than honey or maple syrup. But is the only issue with coconut palm its invalidated health claims?
Questions that drive the investigation:Maybe you have also heard about palm oil and its horrifying truths- how closely related are coconut palms to palm oil trees? Are coconut farms similarly destructive as palm oil plantations? Are coconut palm sugar and palm oil the same plant?! If coconut sugar is an alternative to agave (not ideal), honey (not vegan), and maple syrup (not raw), then is it ethically a viable alternative? Because what is the point in consuming “vegan” foods that are injurious to animals and perpetuate murder of endangered species and loss of habitat like orangutans and Sumatran tigers in Indonesia (like palm oil plantations cause)?
Coconut palms produce either the coconut or the sap. There is no in between where you can extract both the sap and the coconut at the same time. In a burgeoning market for coconut “health” products, it would come as little surprise that the production of coconut palm sugar has taken priority over coconut production for the reason that the sap can be more profitable than coconuts not because it is healthier!
Turning coconut plantations into coconut SUGAR plantations is billed as good business (and therefore a perceived boost for the local economy) and ecologically mindful (as after the tree is done being sapped, it will still allegedly produce coconuts). What’s the problem then?
The problem is that a coconut tree that has been used for sap production produces less coconuts after being sapped and to replace the trees or grow a full plantation if productive trees it takes up to a decade though some trees that are better for palm sugar can take 3-5 years to reach maturity.
This presents a problem as many growers have turned away from the traditional production of coconuts which feed the local population to “cash in” on coconut sugar. Instead of planting trees that take 10 years to mature but produce the best coconuts, plantations are turning to sap-producing trees that take about 5 years to nature. When this happens, there are shortages of coconuts and when coconuts are produced from these trees after being sapped, the quality is lessened nutritionally and the yield is lower still reinforcing the shortage issue. The problem may not be apparent immediately but that is the short sightedness of many of these industries: tap now, think later. The problem may be 5 years into the future but will take an additional 10 years to solve. If that happens, what will become of the coconut sugar business? It will move on to the next tropical location while the community that had been producing sugar struggles for over a decade. That is the kind of unsustainable “accident waiting to happen” critique that coconut sugar supporters don’t acknowledge. This mentality also ignores first hand accounts of indigenous or native people who say this business is disruptive and puts profit over sustainable long-term income over the business minded bottom line of foreign industries trying to sell this product.
Mono cropping has many issues associated with it from loss of biodiversity to exposing crops to the increased likelihood of disease which is also problematic. In areas like the Philippines, it was shown that native wildlife did not want to be around the coconut palms. A specific bird whose poops helped to nourish the soil, did not want to nest in or around the coconut palms which led to the palm trees depleting the soil of nutrients that were not restored. Because of the depletion of nutrients, other native plants did not grow in or around the coconut palm plantations!
What research suggests in concern to health claims is the coconut palm sugar is not low glycemic. While it is more natural and less processed than other table sugar alternatives on the market, it does not actually live up to its diabetic friendly claims. So is this popular food about health and wellness or about taste? Because many foods taste good but if coconut sugar has gained popularity based off of its “health” boosts, this is causing a problem that isn’t even warranted!
Ecological: while it’s tempting to say that if you support the “right” farm, you will be able to buy in confidence, the issue with coconut palm sugar is that to be most profitable, coconut sap encourages large farms of only coconut palms which, as mentioned earlier, discourages native ecosystem growth, proliferation, and survival.
Taking already existing coconut trees that are declining in coconut yield or are older or perhaps could be used as sap trees for safety reasons is incredibly resourceful and useful and could be a sustainable method by which to perpetuate the industry forward in a mindful way.
But it doesn’t erase the fact there is loss of biodiversity and pristine rainforest land in order to produce these farms of one kind of tree instead of a variable of inter working wildlife and fauna. The loss of biodiversity is incalculable and that should be the point taken into consideration when making assessments about the sustainability of coconut palms.
With that in mind, expansion in this industry isn’t mindful or positive. What happens after the initial loss of biodiversity can’t ever be considered sustainable in my opinion.
What is a solution? To try and farm in a way that works with the existing Eco system by having less coconut trees concentrated and instead spread further apart to be tapped or harvested for coconuts while allowing native animals to inadvertently continue living with the trees and replenishing the soil. This would also reduce death by coconuts falling because it wouldn’t concentrate so many coconuts in one place making gathering extremely hazardous.
Some great sugar alternatives that are actually sustainable that present less or no hazards like coconut sugar are:
-stevia (choose the ground leaf)
-lakanto (recommended by Body Ecology)
This isn’t to say never use coconut sugar. This is simply to say that before we get behind “the next great thing” without researching it and blindly trusting the claims made, we need to be more aware of what we are eating.
Embracing a raw foods or paleo and vegan lifestyle is about becoming conscious and part of meaningful consciousness is knowing the impact of the foods you’re eating outside of how they affect your body. 🙂