There are lots of sweeteners that customers can choose from in Malaysia. Many supermarkets these days provide a wide range of sweeteners to choose from. The price ranges could be as low as RM2.85 per 1 kg and up to RM14 for 850g for different sweeteners or sugar. This price difference varies with consumers' choices, but sometimes this might cause some confusion for the consumers. So, what are the differences between these sugars? Why are they different in colour, and what are the benefits? In this article, we have chosen three types of sugar: cane sugar, coconut sugar and brown sugar, to discuss the origins, differences and benefits of these sugars. Each of these sugars has its benefits. Thus, it is up to you to choose which sugars are suitable for your consumption according to individual health.
Cane sugar, or "gula tebu", is, as the name suggests, sugar derived from sugar cane. The sugars from the cane plant were extracted from the fibrous stalks of the plant that have an abundance of sugar (1). Sugar cane usage has a long history, back in the days around 2500 BC. That is about 4522 years ago! (2).
This plant that originates from tropical regions of Southeast Asia and New Guinea have a high amount of sucrose is usually processed into refined sugar.
In Malaysia, you can find sugar cane juice or "air tebu" in Pasar Malam. It is processed raw by squeezing and chewing to extract the juice of sugar cane. The juice of sugar cane has a moderately sweet taste with a hint of a refreshing earthy smell. The taste of cane sugar would quench your sweet tooth craving other than being able to rehydrate your body after your long walk in pasta Malam!
To turn sugar cane into cane sugar, sugar cane stalks were washed and crushed into shreds. The shredded stalk will go through a big roller to extract the juice. After the juice is clarified and crystallised, the liquid will be removed and become raw sugar. Raw sugar is then filtered again to remove more unwanted substances. Lastly, it will be dried again and become the end product (3).
Coconut Sugar, or "Gula Kelapa", comes from the sweet, liquid sap that drops from the clipped flower buds of dwarf coconut trees. (4). The harvesting process is usually done in the Southeast Asian region, specifically Thailand, as Thailand has the best climate for the coconut tree to grow. For the collection process, the juice collectors will climb the coconut trees and remove the flowers of the coconut tree. The collecting step is typically done in the afternoon by placing bamboo tubes overnight under the clipped blossom to collect the escaping sap. The sap collected later will be placed into a big pan after filtering via a filter cloth. The mixture is then heated to remove the water while constantly stirring until it thickens into a syrupy, sticky brown consistency (5).
In Malaysia, coconut sugar is not widely used, probably due to its cost. The price is a bit higher compared to cane sugar and brown, thus making it a bit difficult to be used by lower-income people. However, coconut sugar has advantages that could justify the higher price, which is low in glycemic index and suitable for people with diabetes. Inulin content in coconut sugar may help people with type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar levels (6).
Brown sugar, or "gula perang", is always advertised as healthier than white sugar. It is a sugar derived from the same source of cane sugar. The Chinese started using brown sugar and were reported to use brown sugar without further refining it into white sugar. The colour of brown sugar comes from the molasses retained during the processing (7). Molasses left in the brown sugar provide added nutrients to the brown sugar as it contains more vitamins and minerals than white sugar. It also has a good source of iron, selenium and copper which will help contribute to the daily nutrient intake (8).
Differences between Cane Sugar, Coconut Sugar and Brown Sugar
The starkest differences that could be observed from these sugars are the Glycemic Index Value. Glycemic Index is a scale to measure the number of carbohydrates in food and how quickly a specific food could increase the amount of sugar in the blood. The higher the GI of a specific food, the more it may affect the blood sugar levels and vice versa. They are classified into the Low Glycemic Index, Medium Glycemic Index and High Glycemic Index (9).
According to the American Diabetes Association (10) , a GI score is
Low Glycemic Index: 55 or under
Medium Glycemic Index: 56–69
High Glycemic Index: 70 or above
The GI Index Cane Sugar is 50 (11), the GI Index for Coconut Sugar is 35 (12) while the GI Index Brown Sugar is 65 (13). This shows that Coconut sugar has the lowest glycemic index, and it is suitable for people with high blood sugar consumption. People with diabetes could take Coconut Sugar without having any risk of a blood sugar spike. However, even though brown sugar has the highest GI index, it has the added advantage of less process, causing the presence of molasses packed with nutrients our body needs. These varieties of sugar exist for the consumer's convenience, so choose wisely, eat moderately and take good care of your health!
Written by: Alia Adrina Asri
BSc (Hons) Nutrition
Love Earth Nutritionist