“We’ve seen incredible growth from day one, but there are limits to how far regular coconut sugar – which is more akin to brown sugar – can go to replace refined white cane sugar,” co-founder Ben Ripple told FoodNavigator-USA.
“So we’ve launched what we think is going to be a truly disruptive sweetener. The processing technology is completely different from anything that’s come before. It’s still evaporation, but we are using a much more controlled process so we don’t cause caramelization.
“The result is this phenomenal product with a lighter flavor and color and finer crystals that is actually less refined even than the traditional product, because it’s produced without the impact of high heat over a long period.”
Coconut sugar and the glycemic index
Coconut sugar – which is made from nectar from the blossom of the green coconut palm tree (Coco Nucifera) - has the same number of calories as table sugar (sucrose), and you’d have to eat a lot of it to get a meaningful amount of the nutrients it contains (inulin, potassium, zinc, magnesium etc), acknowledges Ripple.
However, consumers are embracing it because it is minimally processed and won’t cause their blood sugar to spike, claimed Ripple, who went backpacking 20 years ago to learn about sustainable farming practices, ended up in Bali and never left (today he works with more than 15,000 family farmers in Indonesia producing a range of products from coconut blossom nectar-based sweeteners to cacao powder).
“Honey is the only other sweetener than consumers perceive as being healthier than coconut sugar, according to Mintel. We're actually not taking anything out of the natural product - coconut blossom nectar - except water."
Vertically integrated brand Big Tree Farms – which introduced the world’s first certified coconut sugar in 2008 and the first Certified Fair Trade coconut sugar in 2014 – works directly with thousands of family farmers and processes coconut blossom nectar at its own factories in Indonesia.
We measure their effects on blood sugar using third party labs on a quarterly basis
While coconut sugar is 70%+ sucrose (the disaccharide in table sugar: glucose + fructose) with the remainder composed of the individual molecules of fructose and glucose, along with inulin (a prebiotic fiber) and some minerals; it has a lower glycemic index (a measure of how foods impact glucose levels in the blood) than regular white sugar, said Ripple.
“We test all of our products so when we say they are low glycemic, it’s because we have actually measured their effects on blood sugar using third party labs on a quarterly basis, whereas a lot of other companies in this space don’t do that and you really don’t know what you’re getting as there are tremendous opportunities for adulteration. And we make our test results available to anyone that asks for them.”
He added: “Our average is between high 30s and low to mid 40s depending on the season [anything less than 55 is considered low glycemic; sucrose has a GI of 65; glucose has a GI of 100], the age of the tree and what island we are pulling from. However the glycemic index of the new golden coconut sugar is vastly more consistent batch to batch than the traditional brown coconut sugar.”
However, being low GI isn’t the only factor consumers should consider when assessing sweeteners, he argued, noting that agave nectar has a lower glycemic index but is composed primarily of fructose, which is metabolized in the liver, with some studies suggesting that it could contribute to fatty liver disease and raise triglycerides.
“Agave numbers in retail are down double digits and I think that consumers are also starting to look again at brown rice syrup, which is just another modified starch-based sweetener,” claimed Ripple.
“I think the future of sweeteners will go to honey and coconut sweeteners, other palm sweeteners and natural non-caloric alternatives such as stevia and monk fruit, although as these [natural high potency] sweeteners become more refined, I think consumers could lose trust in these as well.”
So how should consumers interpret low GI claims on sweeteners such as coconut sugar? We quizzed Kantha Shelke, PhD, principal at Chicago-based food science and research firm Corvus Blue LLC:
"Coconut sugars on the market are not all the same and vary considerably in composition depending on how they are produced, and therefore in their glycemic response. The results of this manufacturer therefore, cannot be applied across the board for all sugars derived from coconut.
"Glycemic Index is a useful concept in terms of comparing the glycemic response of individual ingredients and foods. Co-lab tests, however, show great variability within and among subjects – emphasizing the need for strict protocols for reproducibility. Several factors can affect the variability and lack of reproducibility including ripeness of the food; the extent of cooking (or doneness) of the food; physical form and composition; how the food was prepared; and the health status of the subject.
"The GI is a measure of a single food or ingredient, but humans rarely ingest an ingredient alone or even a food just by itself.
"Because of a high degree of standard deviation for any given food or ingredient, the common method of classifying a single ingredient or a food as high (arbitrarily set at 70 or more), medium (56 to 69), or low GI (55 or less) leaves a lot to be desired. The FDA regards glycemic index or glycemic load of little utility for providing dietary guidance for Americans."
We represent more than 60% of the global b2b market
So how is Big Tree Farms doing?
Today, the Bali-based company supplies multiple markets from the US to Australia and Germany with its coconut blossom nectars and granulated sugars, with around 60% of volumes going to manufacturers and 40% going into its own retail branded products, which started life in the natural channel but are rapidly gaining traction in the conventional and club channel, where Ripple expects his new golden product will do particularly well.
“We’re the #1 selling brand and represent more than 60% of the global b2b market [for coconut sweeteners]. No one is investing for the long term in the way that we are.”
So what does being organic certified actually mean when it comes to coconut blossom nectar production?
“From a chemical usage perspective smallholder production systems are effectively default organic,” explained Ripple.
“But that’s not the only thing the certification covers, we look at things like what is happening on the neighboring properties, the inputs being used on other [conventionally produced] crops grown nearby, and what farmers are using to prevent microbes and yeasts getting into the nectar and causing it to start fermenting, which you don’t want.
“Traditionally, many farmers have used sulfites in the traditional bamboo collection vessels as a way to retard fermentation of the Nira [the local name for coconut blossom nectar], so when we started working on organic certification, we were trying to move farmers away from using sulfites and get them to use a more natural sanitation process, and to use collection covers that go over the vessel to avoid contamination. We have also introduced things such as HDPE piping as the collection vessel with insulated wrap around it to keep the product cooler.”
If you go up and down 30 trees twice a day, it’s exhausting
A big focus now, however, is encouraging women, and the next generation, to get into coconut blossom nectar collection, which is very strenuous, but pays well and generates cash for smallholders throughout the year, said Ripple.
“If you go up and down 30 trees twice a day, it’s exhausting, so we’ve been developing strong but lightweight coconut climbers enabling you to go up and down much more safely and easily. Traditional collectors laugh it off, but newcomers and especially women are very interested.”