Natural sweeteners are all the rage in vegan-friendly or vegetarian kitchens, with products like coconut nectar or agave syrup appearing in everything from desserts to baked goods and breakfasts.
Vegetarian or vegan cooks are employing these naturally sourced sweeteners not only for their perceived health benefits but also due to the widespread use of bone char in sugar production.
Many manufacturers use bone char to decolourise or bleach sugars through an absorption process. Bone char is a byproduct of slaughtered cattle and is made by heating animal bones at temperatures of up to 500 degrees Celsius, which then turns them into carbon.
Not all sugar producers use bone char, however – for example, any Department of Agriculture-certified organic sugar is free of the cattle byproduct. Those without bone char are often described as “unrefined”, but it can be hard to know when it has been used.
Enter natural alternatives to sugar. Agave syrup has been popular for a while now, but coconut nectar is also becoming widely used – and even being touted as a healthier option.
Coconut nectar is essentially the sap from flowers of a coconut tree and traditionally found in Southeast Asia under the name palm sugar. Some cooks describe coconut nectar as having a floral flavour profile with a slightly earthy taste and bittersweet finish.
Coconut nectar is made through a two-step process where sap is drawn out from coconut flowers and collected into containers. Once heated it turns caramel-like, forming a sticky and sweet substance that is dark brown in colour. Coconut sugar is the dehydrated form.
Agave syrup meanwhile is produced when farmers harvest a sweet substance from the succulent agave plants, which have large sword-like leaves. Agave plantations are typically found in the United States and Mexico, and other places with warmer climates. Agave sap is traditionally known to have medicinal properties and is also used to produce tequila.
To harvest agave syrup, farmers cut the plant to expose its sap-rich core, which they then dig to collect the sap. Producers then heat the sap to create a syrup that is viscous and golden or amber in colour and is known for its neutral and sweet taste.
Coconut and agave: which one is better for you?
Both natural sweeteners are popular with health enthusiasts and home cooks because of their low glycemic index (GI) levels. GI is a system used to measure how foods raise blood sugar levels. For example, glucose is given a GI of 100, so food with a GI of 50 would increase blood sugar levels half as much as pure glucose.
So, according to this chart, table sugar or white sugar has a GI of 60, while coconut nectar or sugar is lower at 54. Agave syrup sits between 10 and 20, depending on its source and how it was made.
Nutritionists advise eating foods with a low GI reading to encourage healthy blood glucose levels, particularly for those with insulin issues. High blood glucose readings may result in diabetes if not managed well.
Part of the reason why agave syrup has a low GI reading is because of its high fructose content. Coconut nectar is 40% fructose, while agave is 85% based on this profile analysis. Some other reports found that as much as 90% of agave syrup is made up of fructose.
Natural sweeteners that are high in fructose rather than glucose are less likely to raise blood sugar levels or affect insulin production in the short term. But medical researchers have also found that when consumed in high quantities over long periods, products with a high level of fructose will still spike blood glucose levels, raising the risk of diabetes and liver damage. The liver is the only organ in the body able to process fructose, which is broken down into fat.
A whole host of other complications may arise from overconsumption of fructose, such as increased levels of “bad” low-density lipoprotein (often referred to as LDL). This study found that consuming 100 grams or more of fructose daily increases total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Higher LDL cholesterol is an indicator of increased risk of heart disease or stroke.
Aside from that, high fructose consumption can contribute to fatty liver disease or belly fat accumulation, both lead to a risk of cardiovascular-related issues.
And in the coconut nectar versus agave syrup debate, research shows that agave products have quite a high carbohydrate and fructose content compared to sugars from the palm tree.
Everything in moderation
So should we ditch agave syrup completely? There is no definite answer but home cooks who are aware of these health facts are encouraged to choose wisely. Nutritionists are promoting moderation and recommending no more than six to nine teaspoons of sugar a day for women and men, respectively, regardless of its source. And this applies to all forms of sweeteners, be it coconut nectar, honey, agave syrup, molasses or even table sugar.
If you opt for coconut nectar, you could use it in soft-baked cookies or bread, or simply drizzle it lightly over granola for breakfast.
Coconut sugar is another option but if you plan to bake with it then you grind it first because it tends to be quite coarse. Coconut nectar and sugar also burns at a lower temperature, so watch your pot – burnt coconut sugar is particularly acrid.
With its bittersweet and earthy profile, food author Shauna Sever says that coconut nectar adds a nice complexity to the flavour of candies and caramels, and at breakfast time can give an added lift to pancakes or waffles.
If replacing sugar with agave syrup, baked goods recipes recommend using a ratio of two-thirds of a cup of agave syrup or less to replace one cup of sugar.