As a Registered Dietitian, I recommend you start using palm sugar instead of brown sugar, even if just to sweeten your tea or coffee in the morning.
Or if you are particularly enthused to make this beneficial swap – you can even substitute palm sugar entirely in your baking recipes.
Because of their similar make-up, brown sugar and palm sugar can be interchangeable with each other.
Just make sure that you understand that there will subtle differences you may experience.
Here I will explain what each sugar is exactly. Why palm sugar is healthier, and how to properly substitute one for the other.
Is your sweet tooth tinglingly yet?
What is Brown Sugar?
You likely have it sitting in your kitchen right now but do you know exactly what brown sugar is and the effect it can have on your nutrition status?
Brown sugar is simply less refined white sugar (made from sugar cane) that has had molasses added to it, giving it that signature brown color.
Molasses is actually a byproduct of sugar cane processing, and contains more of the plant compounds.
Unlike white sugar, which is quite literally just pure sweetness, brown sugar has deep flavor notes almost caramel-like in addition to the sweetness.
Since brown sugar is not as refined, it contains a bit more minerals from the sugar cane it originates from.
Brown sugar provides a nice little dose of calcium and potassium. These minerals help maintain cellular fluid levels, muscle contraction, bone health, blood clotting, heart rhythm, and nerve functions.
You can find variations of brown sugar at the grocery store, such as light and dark brown sugars. The difference is simply being how much molasses they add to it.
Dark brown sugar has nearly double the amount of molasses. This means the taste, moisture, and nutritional value are all also twice as much.
As far as culinary functions, brown sugar sees most of it’s use in baked goods. This is because the molasses adds another layer of flavor (not just sweetness) and more moisture to the end product.
All in all, brown sugar is one of my favorite sugars to use because of its rich flavor and that it does actually provide some nutritional value and not just empty carbohydrates.
What is Palm Sugar?
Unlike brown sugar, I would wager a bet that palm sugar is likely not sitting in your kitchen at the present moment.
While available at most grocery stores, you simply do not see palm sugar in many recipes and is not a pantry staple in most people’s kitchens, including my own.
Palm sugar is sugar that comes from the sap of palm flowers. It comes from any variety of palm trees, but most commonly the coconut tree.
Palm sugar is a term commonly used interchangeably with coconut sugar. However, these are in fact two different products because they are harvested differently.
While it has a sharper flavor from the palm flowers, palm sugar also has some caramel notes. Although it is not quite as sweet as brown or white granulated sugar.
It’s also important to note that the culinary techniques are quite different as true palm sugar typically does not come packaged as one would expect a sugar.
Because it’s a very minimally refined sugar (also known as a raw sugar) it is sold in hard blocks that must be broken up or shaved down. Not exactly user-friendly.
However, some brands do offer palm sugar as a paste where water has been incorporated until a paste-like substance has formed and is then sold in plastic jars.
While palm sugar may not be the most practical sugar to use, the nutritional profile greatly makes up for it.
Because palm sugar undergoes so little refinement, it also provides a hefty amount of calcium and potassium. Making it a rather nutrient-dense option as far as sugar is concerned.
So in my Culinary Dietitian opinion, palm sugar is a great sugar to experiment with. Whether it is in your baking endeavors or just simply in your morning coffee or tea.
You’ll get the sweetness (plus some caramel notes) but knowing you are actually getting some minerals and not just straight empty calories like what white granulated sugar provides you.
Health Benefits: Brown Sugar vs Palm Sugar
Now that we know what each sugar actually is, what makes one better than the other? Let’s take a look at the health benefits of palm sugar vs brown sugar.
As mentioned above, both sugars are not as refined as the white table sugar that we are so familiar with. Because of this, both sugars contain some beneficial micronutrients.
There is more calcium and potassium in palm sugar, making palm sugar better than brown sugar as far as their nutritional profiles. So from a dietitian standpoint, palm sugar is much healthier for you than regular sugar.
One teaspoon of palm sugar contains 13 mg of calcium and 35 mg of potassium.
Compare this to one teaspoon of brown sugar that only provides 3.8 mg of calcium and 6.12 mg of potassium.
Besides these two minerals, brown sugar and palm sugar are relatively comparable in their other health benefits.
There are about the same amount of calories in both the two due to the similar carbohydrate content.
One of the main reasons people are comparing brown sugar vs palm sugar is to see if they are proper substitutions for each other.
And the answer, as it almost always is in the nutrition/culinary world, is it just depends.
It depends on your intended use of sugar; culinary or for nutritional value.
If your recipe calls for palm sugar and that stuff has never even been in your kitchen before, don’t panic just yet. You can substitute brown sugar for palm sugar with an equal 1:1 ratio.
Meaning if the recipe calls for 1 cup of palm sugar, you can substitute 1 cup of brown sugar instead.
Palm sugar is a frequent ingredient in Thai cooking as well. So if you come across palm sugar in your ethnic cookery, brown sugar is still an appropriate substitute you just may want to use a tad less.
Brown sugar has the same darker color and deep caramel flavor so it’ll be the closest match to palm sugar that you can find.
However, palm sugar is less sweet than brown sugar.
So for baking recipes that call for palm sugar, just be aware that you may want to use slightly less brown sugar to prevent the end product from being overly sweet.
In contrast, if the recipe calls for brown sugar, the end result will not be quite as sweet as if you use palm sugar instead.
This works both ways as well, if you want to spruce up the nutritional value of a dish. Just use coconut palm sugar as a substitute for brown sugar.
This will give your food or drink a boost with a few extra micronutrients.
Depending on your intended use, it may be beneficial to start keeping palm sugar in your pantry.
When analyzing brown sugar vs palm sugar, it’s vital to understand what each sugar originates from.
Brown sugar is made from sugar cane with the byproduct of molasses added back into it. Palm sugar is made from sap from the trunks of any variety of palm tree.
While both sugars go through less refinement than the white sugar we are familiar with, one is definitely superior to the other as far as their nutrition profiles.
Palm sugar contains more plant compounds itself, allowing it to provide over 3x the amount of calcium and over 5x the amount of potassium.
That is why palm sugar is this Culinary Dietitian’s choice when comparing brown sugar vs palm sugar.
However, it’s not always the nutrition that we worry about, sometimes it’s simply wanting to know what is a good substitute when you come across these two sugars.
Palm sugar can be a swap for brown sugar and vice-versa. The exchange between the two is equal parts.
Both sugars have a light brown color and caramel flavor notes that they’ll make for proper substitutes for each other.
At the end of the day, I would recommend you give palm sugar a try at your house because if I had to wager a guess, you’ve probably never tried it.
It’s something different to try and an excellent sugar alternative that would actually provide you some nutritional benefits as well.
FAQ Comparing Other Sugars
Palm Sugar vs White Sugar
Palm sugar is healthier than sugar (also known as white or cane sugar). White sugar is as refined as sugar comes, it’s stripped of everything except for the sugar crystal itself.
Palm sugar on the other hand is much less refined, containing more of the actual plant compounds. Providing a nice dose of calcium and potassium in particular.
However, note that palm sugar is not quite as sweet as white or cane sugar. Palm sugar also has a deeper caramel flavor as well.
Because of the refinement process, or lack thereof for palm sugar, there is also a difference in texture and color.
The sugar we are familiar with is stark white with a smooth and consistent texture. While palm sugar is light brown in color and comes in hard blocks that you must chip away to use.
Palm Sugar vs Coconut Sugar
Palm sugar and coconut sugar are not the same product, even though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.
You can harvest palm sugar from the sap of any palm tree trunk (yes including coconut trees), but coconut sugar is only harvested from the flower sap of coconut trees.
While they are both less refined, making them both a healthier option, coconut sugar has higher amounts of minerals.
Coconut Sugar Substitute
The best substitute for coconut sugar would be brown sugar due to similar taste and color. The texture would be slightly different as coconut sugar is typically a larger sugar crystal than brown sugar.
There is also a nutritional difference as coconut sugar will have more micronutrients than brown sugar.
Brown Sugar vs Cane Sugar
The difference between brown sugar and cane sugar is molasses, even though they both originate from the sugar cane plant.
Molasses is a byproduct of sugar cane processing that they remove for cane sugar, but add back in for brown sugar.
Brown sugar would be a healthier option as it is less refined and, because of the molasses, has more of the actual plant compounds in it providing more micronutrients.