Coconut palm sugar, or palm blossom sugar, is gradually being discovered in western markets as a natural sweetener which brings some surprising benefits for companies and consumers.
The product has a distinct taste and rich flavour, unlike any other natural sweetener. Compared to natural cane sugar, the sweetness is somewhat less pronounced and the flavour is more flowery.
Next to the distinct flavour profile, the product has important health and nutrition benefits. Unlike the empty calories present in white table sugar, palm sugar contains important minerals such as copper, iron, magnesium, zinc and potassium and vitamins C and B1 (thiamine).
Surprisingly for a sugar product, coconut sugar has a low glycemic index, although the few existing measurements vary from 35 to 54 depending on the source. Below 55 a product is considered low glycemic, which means that the glucose level in the blood rises more gradually after eating.
A possible explanation for this characteristic is the presence of inulin, which would slow down the uptake of glucose in the blood. A word of caution: sugar will often be used in a composite product, so the overall glycemic index of that product will be different. Still, it is an important characteristic.
With respect to sustainability, companies like Aliet Green and Profil Mitra Abadi from Indonesia, Treelife Organic and Lao Integrated Organic Farms from the Philippines are certified organic, and some are also fair trade. The sugar production provides an important source of income and employment for the household and its members retain independence as farmers.
Coconut sugar production can be alternated with production of coconuts, but they cannot be produced together. Farmers thus have a choice about what to produce from the coconut. In the traditional setting, the need for firewood is a substantial cost and environmental factor. Many producers have invested in improved ovens, which are much more efficient and thus need less wood.
An important aspect in the discussion of sustainability is the yield. When sugar is converted to alcohol, coconut trees yield a similar amount as cane sugar, of about 5000 litres per hectare. For this reason, the economic potential of coconut sugar may be much larger than as a luxury niche product in western markets. Incidentally, another palm species called nipa, which grows in mangroves and is also used for tapping, can yield up to 15600 litres of ethanol per ha, and is therefore even more interesting energy-wise.
Coconut palm sugar has a long tradition of use over several millennia. Today it is a key ingredient in Thai, Filipino and Indonesian cooking. As a sweetener it can be used in coffee, tea, desserts, cookies, cake and in hot dishes. Industrial uses of the product are similar to natural cane sugar, for example: pastry and bakery products, breakfast cereals, beverages and desserts. Exporters are becoming more versatile in adapting the product to customer specifications, for example the colour, size of the granules and the sweetness of the syrup.
Aliet Green, Profil Mitra Abadi, Treelife Organic and Lao Integrated Organic Farms have strict quality and food safety management systems, such as HACCP and FSSC 22000. They will be presented at BioFach 2017 by CBI Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs this coming February 15-18 in Nuremberg. The product is available in granulated and liquid form (syrup), and flavoured, with turmeric, ginger and other spices. Freek Jan Koekoek is a CBI Sector Expert, Food Ingredients and Managing Director of Mercadero www.mercadero.nl