Dr. Oz is talking and nutritionists are shuddering. It’s almost a daily occurrence. This time he is all excited about a sugar substitute that according to him does not have a “chemical taste,” whatever that may be. And what is that substitute? Sugar. But this sugar doesn’t come from sugar cane or from sugar beets, it is crystallized from the nectar of the coconut palm. But isn’t sugar, sugar? Oz makes a case for coconut palm sugar for two reasons. It contains vitamins and minerals and has a lower glycemic index than ordinary sugar, which implies that it is more evenly absorbed and does not give rise to sugar spikes in the blood. So what about those minerals and vitamins? A spoonful contains 0.2 mg of iron. That is one one hundredth of our daily requirement. And vitamin C? The 2.3 mg is what you would find in 1 mL of orange juice. Totally insignificant. How about the glycemic index? There is one small study carried out in the Phillipines with a handful of subjects that suggests less of a sugar spike in the blood, probably because remnants of inulin, a form of fiber, slow absorption. This has no practical relevance and recommending that someone switch to palm sugar from cane sugar because of a difference in glycemic index is tantamount to recommending someone drink a soft drink through a thinner straw for more even sugar absorption.
Oz’s animated comment that palm sugar will reduce weight gain by eliminating the appetite-stimulating sugar crash associated with ordinary sugar is irresponsible. There is not one iota of evidence that palm sugar has any effect on weight. On his show, he introduced an overweight self-proclaimed sugar addict who had been goaded onto the stage to absorb Dr. Oz’s wisdom about the benefits of switching to palm sugar. After sampling cookies and muffins baked with it, she expressed delight at the taste of palm sugar and happily announced that she will make the switch. The only legitimate advice this lady should be given by any physician is that she needs to lose weight drastically, and that her focus should be on reducing sugar of all kinds, never mind eating muffins sweetened with palm sugar instead of cane sugar. Dr. Oz’s calling palm sugar a “nutritious natural sweetener” leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. The marketing of palm sugar may have some other bitter consequences as well. This sugar is made by tapping palm trees, mostly coconut palms in the fashion of tapping maple trees. The sap is then boiled down to leave the crude palm sugar behind. But coconut palms that are tapped in this fashion will stop producing coconuts which are a staple in many Asian diets. In essence the farmers will be catering to a niche American market leaving the local population in the lurch.