What is palm sugar?
Palm sugar is a natural sweetener made from the sap of palm trees, often the coconut or date variety.
Known as nolen gur in its native Bengal region of India, palm is regarded as a natural sugar because it contains no chemicals and requires minimum processing in comparison to its fine, white counterpart.
Palm sugar is made when the flower bud sap is heated until it turns to a thick, sugary syrup before being reduced to crystals on a higher heat.
Where to buy palm sugar
While palm sugar was previously found exclusively in specialty Indian and south east Asian shops, it is now more readily available in supermarkets and health food outlets.
It is sold in bottles and tins in liquid form, resembling a golden coloured honey with a mild, caramel flavour, and is available in most good food stores in block, granular and syrup form.
Palm sugar often referred to as the sweet makers ‘secret weapon’ across south eastern Asia where it is used in curries, sauces, ice cream and desserts.
Recently, there has been debate about the healthiness of using palm sugar in baking and cooking.
Is palm sugar healthy?
As an unrefined sweetener, palm sugar is known to be rich in vitamins and minerals like iron, potassium and zinc.
It is particularly rich in B vitamins essential for cell growth and repair, and also boasts a low glycemic index which means it helps to regulate and measure carbohydrate levels in the blood.
Testing by the Philippine government determined that coconut sugar has a glycemic index of 35, well below the recommended lower benchmark of 55.
Low GI foods maintain a balanced blood sugar level, preventing insulin spikes and allowing food to be absorbed slowly and steadily.
However, it is important to remember that palm sugar is still a sweetener and should be used in moderation. In terms of calories, palm sugar is almost identical to white table sugar.
Palm sugar should also be wholly distinguished from palm oil, the harvest of which continues to wreak havoc on the global environment and communities across south-east Asia.
What can I use as an alternative to palm sugar?
Honey is the original all-natural sweetener with a content of fructose and glucose which is very close to that of palm sugar, meaning it achieves a similar sweetness when used as a replacement in baking or cooking.
However, using liquid honey may mean you need to adjust the other liquids in your recipe. Avoid this inconvenience by using honey powder.
Remember that baked goods sweetened with liquid honey tend to brown more quickly than those that use other sweeteners.
The Kitchn advise using half a cup of honey for every one cup of sugar called for in the recipe.
According to online baking aficionados, standard white sugar lacks the depth of flavour palm sugar exudes in cakes and other sweet treats.
Food52 recommend adding a dash of dark molasses or malt syrup to the mixture along with white sugar to infuse zing.
White sugar can be used as a 1:1 alternative for every cup of palm sugar required.
If you’ve already started to bake and realise you are lacking in palm sugar, Muscovado can be used as a last ditch substitute.
Although it appears similar in colour, Muscovado has some glaring differences to palm sugar which make it a final resort replacement.
Muscovado is unrefined and boasts a heavy, smoky and slightly bitter taste which is a far cry from its palm counterpart.
It also leaves a lingering aftertaste which isn’t ideal for sweet cakes, biscuits or desserts, so go sparingly if you have no choice but to use this substitute.
Spiceography recommend starting with half the amount of muscovado sugar that your recipe requires for palm sugar and increase to taste.
For baking, unrefined cane sugar is listed as the number one substitute for palm sugar thanks to its similar sweetness and texture.
Cane is best used as an alternative for coconut palm sugar, although it is sweeter and lacks the distinctive earthy taste of palm sweetener.
Livestrong advise increasing the volume of sugar by 25 percent when substituting cane for palm.
Dark brown sugar
Taking silver for the second best palm sugar replacement is a small quantity of dark brown sugar.
Like palm sugar, dark brown sugar is less sweet than standard white table sugar thanks to its part-molasses make up which also gives it a warm, caramel flavour.
Dark brown sugar can be used as an exact substitute for every gram of palm sugar required in the recipe.
Maple syrup is regarded as an excellent (if not the best) palm sugar alternative for its similar rich taste, as well as for the fact it can be eaten by diabetics, IBS sufferers and FODMAP adherents.
Using maple syrup in cookies, sweet bread, muffins and cakes will produce much the same result as palm sugar with a distinctive butterscotch style flavour.
For healthy recipes, maple syrup can also be combined with a fruit puree like mashed banana to reduce the volume of bottled sweetener used.
Just be careful to go easy when adding maple syrup to desserts and beverages, as the taste can become overpowering quite quickly.
According to Quora users, five tablespoons of maple syrup is equal to 100 grams of palm sugar.