Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Pros and Cons of Coconut Palm Sugar: Part 3

For the past few blog posts, I've been evaluating coconut palm sugar. 

Bag of Navitas Coconut Palm Sugar

We've looked at the rather small amount of research that has gone into its nutritive value, as well as coconut palm sugar's remarkably low glycemic index value.  Today, we're going a step farther.

Do you remember how I had discovered that coconut sugar was the center of a huge controversy?

That controversy has to do with sustainability.  

Specifically, we're talking about the process involved in attaining this sugar, and how it may or may not effect the future of the coconut tree as a species.

Coconut palm sugar is created by tapping the sap (also referred to as 'toddy') of the coconut tree.  

This is done by tapping into the flower bud.  Sap drips from the fleshy stem (for lack of a better descriptor) from which a series of blossoms can grow.  

(image source)

It is then collected and heated just enough to begin the evaporation process - around medium heat.  As the liquid evaporates, crystallization occurs.  The fine crystals we get in a bag of coconut palm sugar are created through constant stirring.

No other processing is required.

Simple, easy, and green.

Or is it?

Tropical Traditions, a company that sells coconut oil, questions just how green this process really is, promoting other sweeteners, such as raw honey and grade B maple syrup (Grade A is more highly processed than Grade B).  

Here's the problem, as they state it:
"What no one is warning consumers about is that coconut palm trees cannot produce both coconuts and coconut palm sugar! When the sap used to make coconut palm sugar is collected from the coconut palm tree, from the flower bud that will eventually form a coconut, that tree can no longer produce coconuts! Think about that for a minute. No coconuts = no coconut oil, no dried coconut, no coconut flour. Is coconut sugar worth giving up these other valued products that come from the coconut?? Some claim that if a coconut palm tree is producing coconut sugar, which means that it cannot produce coconuts at the same time, that it can still be converted back to producing coconuts at a later time. However, in Marianita's experience in growing up in a coconut producing community, she has never seen this happen, and we have not seen any studies that have been conducted published anywhere to back up this claim." (source link)
They link to an article from the Manila Bulletin Publishing Corporation that talks about the Philippine Coconut Authority's promotion of coconut palm sugar production in order to drive their point home.

They have a valid worry.  One wonders if the price of coconut oil, and coconuts in general, will skyrocket, due to decreased supply. Naturally, a company that is centered around coconuts would be worried about this result - I know I would be!

But would this have other repercussions?

If Tropical Traditions is correct, and if a tree can't be coaxed to reproduce coconuts, what does this mean for the future of coconut trees as a whole? Could it be another case of humans pursuing a path toward the extinction of a species?  

If the coconuts aren't able to be produced, after all, how are they going to produce new trees?  

I know, I know... this seems like I'm panicking.  

We all know, however, that humans are notorious for acting first and thinking later - even I am a great example of that!  We all are, in some way.  I couldn't help worrying, though, that the need to be financially secure (a very valid and understandable need) could cause something like this to happen.  

Think about it.  You find a way to make more money.  This money enables you to put food on the table.  That food on your table keeps your family alive, and even healthy.  Is it really even a choice?  According to the CIA's world fact book, in 2009, 26.5% of the Philippine population lived below the poverty line.  This fact is accurate as of January 2011, according to the site.  

We're not talking about having the funds to buy an iPod.  We're talking about having the money to survive.

You begin to see why I worry.  When it comes down to your family or the environment, is there really any other choice than providing for your family?  

If you answered that question with "yes", you really need to get off of your $1,000+ computer, hang up your iPhone, and pay attention to the world around you.

This means that unless there are other options available for people to collect the much sought-after sap, coconut trees could be in some serious danger.

Fortunately, I did find something that caused me to sigh in relief.

I found Coconut Sugar Philippines.  Their site had a single sentence that made me smile.
"With proper management, it is now possible to have two products from a single spadix, sugar and nuts." (source)

Unfortunately, I didn't find anything on how that could be done.

Yep.  It was a dead end.  At least for now.  The site showed one photo of this taking place, but without any information talking about the process.

Well... Oh, well.

I did notice, though, the terminology used on sites that spoke about the process.  The trees are no longer "allowed" to produce coconuts.  Ability and allowance are two different things.  But that's not all...

I found Wilderness Family Naturals, which dedicated a short section to the coconut palm sugar process.

Apparently, the trees that are used for sugar production, in many cases, are the ones closest to the house, as well as the oldest ones - the ones whose nut production is no longer what it used to be.  Basically, this would mean that there is clear selection of existing trees, rather than a blanket change, on many coconut farms.

Think about it.  

This means the trees being used are carefully selected in order to ensure coconuts can still be collected on their farms, while providing safety around the central living space (Sudden death due to a coconut falling from a tree is not impossible.  It happens more often than you'd think).  This safety is being provided in a manner that's still profitable.

Furthermore, one simple thing finally hit me: Many of the trees they saw "had been tapped for over 10 years."  Researching further, I found that a coconut tree can produce sap for up to twenty years.  That's twenty years of continuous income from one tree.

The coconut is one of the Philippine food staples.  

They'll ensure that coconuts continue to be a viable food source beyond mere sap.  Are we lacking a supply of corn for tables in the United States?  Of course not... even though we use corn syrup in just about everything on the supermarket shelves!

One of the tasks of the Philippine Coconut Authority is to
"Implement and sustain a nationwide coconut planting and replanting, fertilization and rehabilitation, and other farm productivity programs;" (Source)
As far as sustainability is concerned, I think coconut palm sugar is a viable sweetener.  My views could change in the future, based on new information I receive, but I see no danger of losing our precious supply of coconuts, nor the coconut oil I'm so enamored with.

Indeed, buying 100% coconut palm sugar may even help the Philippine poverty situation on some small level if, of course, the sugar you purchase was actually farmed in the Philippines.

What do you think?  Is this a good and sustainable option, or do you think coconut palm sugar shouldn't be on store shelves?


  1. Great Post for coconut palm sugar pros and cons its really different from others.

  2. Thanks, Matt! I really enjoyed doing all of the research for it.

  3. Thank you for researching and sharing your information. There is so much bias toward coconut sugar out there, it's almost amazing; but not so much after considering the incentive of making a lot of $ by promoting it to the USA lol!

  4. Judy, you're welcome! What do you think about the situation? Do the pros outweigh the cons?