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Unrefined Sugar – The Ultimate Guide

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Sugar has become a highly contentious topic and it’s sometimes difficult to filter the unrestrained hype from the cold hard facts. The truth about sugar lies somewhere between the extremes.

It can impact your health just like any type of sugar, but it also doesn’t have to be feared like the plague.

What is unrefined sugar? Unrefined sugar may refer to a variety of minimally processed cane sugars which are quite different from the white table sugar and other types of refined sugar usually used for baking and sweetening.

In this ultimate guide to unrefined sugar, we’ll discuss unrefined sugar in depth, by all its names. There are benefits, disadvantages, and simple differences to all types of sugar.

Before you make your next purchasing decision, you’ll be able to arm yourself with facts.

What Is Sugar?

To understand the differences in types of sugar, we should start with a basic understanding of what sugar is, at its most basic level.

Sugar is naturally occurring in most plants, responsible for varying levels of sweetness in our natural food.

Different types of cane sugar plants produce slightly different types of sugar, which are often referred to by their growing location, such as Demarara.

Sugar beets aren’t nearly so temperamental about where they grow and a large refinery today can produce 1500 tonnes of sugar every 24 hours with a minimal workforce compared to sugar cane facilities.

Today, sugar beets provide about 30% of sugar to the world at large but account for more than 50% of sugar consumption in the USA.

What Is Unrefined Sugar?

Jaggery Sugar

All granulated sugar is refined to some degree since it needs to be extracted.

A generally accepted definition of unrefined sugar, however, is minimally refined.

As sugar is extracted from either sugar beets or cane sugar, molasses is made. If all the molasses is kept in the sugar, the sugar is considered unrefined. 

A few of the least refined sugars commonly considered unrefined include:

  • Whole Cane Sugar – This is made from the first crystallization of sugar cane juice, using no bleaching or chemicals, allowing the sugar to retain its molasses.
  • Sucanat – This is a trademarked name that stands for “sugar cane natural.” This sugar is produced by a process for minimally refining cane sugar in which the sugar and molasses are separated and then recombined to create a consistent finished product.
  • Jaggery – Traditionally from India, jaggery is made from date palm or sugar cane and is not granulated but rather formed into a solid dough or paste.
  • Rapadura – Traditionally from Brazil, for rapadura sugar only the water is removed as it is dehydrated over low heat, leaving a caramel flavor from the molasses and more naturally occurring nutrients.

The least refined sugar it is possible to buy is made from traditional, artisanal cane sugar producers. They’re typically only made in very small batches for the local market they serve and very little modern machinery is used.

Quite often unrefined sugar will be packaged as a block or a cone. This is because the high concentration of molasses that remains in the sugar is very sticky.

If it’s granulated before being packaged, it either requires anti-coagulation agents to keep it from clumping or you’ll end up with clumps. Solid sugar can be grated relatively easily using a cheese grater or knife.

Unrefined Sugar Vs Raw Sugar

Many people assume that raw sugar is unrefined, but this isn’t true. Raw sugar is less refined than white or brown table sugar, but it is more refined than previously described. 

What Is Raw Sugar?

Muscovado Sugar

Raw sugar has had some of the molasses removed, though not all. It is the middle ground between refined and unrefined sugar.

Typically, unrefined sugars will have between 8–15% molasses, whereas raw sugar will have closer to 2% molasses.

Raw sugar is considered only partially refined.

It’s also interesting to note that raw sugar has been cooked, so it’s not technically raw. The sugar cane or beets are heated to release the sugar, clarified to remove some of the molasses, and then dehydrated to create a solid. 

In most cases, a centrifuge is used to spin the liquid syrup to remove the crystals which are used for sugar. The resulting syrup is molasses.

Depending on the manufacturer, the clarification process may involve pressure filtration, which is relatively natural, though some companies do use chemicals to purify their sugar.

Also depending on the type of sugar being manufactured, after it has been clarified, molasses made be added back into the final product.

Darker raw sugars like muscovado are higher in molasses, though it has been reintroduced to the sugar as another step in the processing.

Raw sugar can be found in various ground sizes, from large, coarse crystals to a finer consistency similar to brown sugar.

Types of Raw Sugar

Just like there are a variety of unrefined sugars, there are also many different types of raw sugars.

The most common types of raw sugar are:

  • Muscovado Sugar – This type of sugar isn’t overly refined and has more in common with unrefined sugars than the others in this section, but it does have lime added to it during the clarification process. Muscovado is typically quite dark and moist compared to other raw sugars.
  • Demerara Sugar – Named for the South American country of its origin, demerara is lightly processed, though it is sent through a centrifuge to remove a considerable amount of molasses. The end result is large, crunchy grains that are a light brown color with a natural caramel flavor.
  • Turbinado Sugar: Made from sugar cane, turbinado sugar has the molasses removed from the sugar and then reintroduced in specific quantities. The granules are smaller and darker than demerara sugar, usually with a slightly higher molasses content.

Is Raw Sugar Healthy?

In the nutritional space, there’s a general consensus that the less processed or refined a food, the healthier it is to consume. This is not always true

Some foods need to be processed to remove toxins and poisons, but that’s a topic for another food. Other foods are simply lacking in nutritional value, whether they’re refined or not. Some foods are unhealthy for some people and healthy for others. 

Many people choose raw sugar over white sugar believing that raw sugar is healthier for them.

While it is true that there are slightly more trace nutrients and minerals in raw sugar, and even more in unrefined sugar, the reality is that any kind of sugar is essentially pure sucrose.

Your body will not treat one type of sugar any differently from another type, with the exception of naturally occurring sugars eaten as part of whole foods, like apples.

There is very little nutritional value to sugar of any kind, including raw sugar, and it should not be considered healthy

Unrefined Sugar Vs Refined Sugar

Refined sugar, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is the most heavily processed and refined of all sugars.

It goes through multiple cycles to cook as much molasses out of the sugar syrup as possible and it is also clarified carefully to remove all traces of impurities.

The result is a crisp white color, delicate granule, and 99% or more pure sucrose.

What Is Refined Sugar?

White Sugar

Refined sugar is made much the same way as unrefined or raw sugar, but it goes through the process multiple times until nearly all the molasses is removed.

Refined white sugar is more clarified than other sugars, very carefully refined to remove all traces of impurities and color. This is often accomplished with chemicals. 

The following types of sugars are considered refined:

  • White sugar
  • Brown sugar – both golden and dark brown
  • Confectioner’s sugar
  • Ultrafine sugar
  • Sugar cubes
  • White powdered sugar

Brown Sugar Vs White Sugar

Brown sugar and white sugar differ mainly in their flavor and texture. White sugar has a pure sweetness and fine, dry granule.

Brown sugar, on the other hand, is much more moist and dense. It has a richer, more full-bodied caramel or toffee flavor because of the molasses and it’s stickier than white sugar.

Unrefined Sugar Vs Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is a very confusing product for many of us who are programmed to see “brown” as the healthy alternative to “white” foods. 

In some cases, this is somewhat true for brown sugar, as unrefined sugars that have molasses remaining are typically brown in color. However, the sugar that is marketed as brown sugar is an entirely different product. 

Brown sugar is essentially white refined sugar that has had molasses added back in.

It has gone through the entire refining process and been treated with molasses afterward to bring in the golden color, fluffy moist texture, and deeper caramel flavor.

Unrefined Brown Sugar

If you find sugar that is specifically labeled “unrefined brown sugar,” it will most likely be one of the types of unrefined sugars previously mentioned in this article.

As discussed, the brown color is thanks to the naturally occurring molasses in sugar, so if it hasn’t been removed, the sugar will be naturally brown.

Refined brown sugar is carefully measured to create a very consistent toffee-like color and flavor. Even though it’s added into the sugar on purpose, brown sugar has less molasses than unrefined sugar, though usually more than raw sugar.

Depending on whether the brown sugar is light golden or dark brown, it may have anywhere between 3–7% molasses.

Unrefined sugars, or unrefined brown sugar, will typically be much darker than brown sugar and have between 8–15% molasses.

Unrefined Sugar – Baking

If you’re planning on baking with unrefined sugar, you need to understand that it will not dissolve the same way as refined sugar.

The granules are typically much larger and the higher molasses content can change the flavor and texture of your baked good.

Unrefined and raw sugars are also lighter than table sugar, so they may require more liquid to get the proper consistency. Unfortunately, there’s no exact ratio that works for all unrefined and raw sugars when used to replace refined sugar.

It can be different for each recipe, so you will have to do a little experimentation.

Raw Vs White Sugar

White sugar is the most commonly used sugar for baking. It may also be called granulated sugar or table sugar.

The crystals are carefully ground to create consistent, small granules that don’t cake together. This makes it easy to sprinkle, mix, measure, and dissolve the sugar smoothly.

Raw sugar and unrefined sugar bring more natural flavor to a recipe, incorporating a smoky caramel undertone.

However, this is far from the only difference you have to be prepared for if you’re trying to substitute raw or unrefined sugar for white sugar in a recipe.

If you’re working with high moisture recipes, you may not notice too much of a difference in terms of rising, but low-moisture dough won’t be able to effectively melt the sugar, resulting in grainy, dense baked goods

If you use dry raw sugars, you can work around this issue by first grinding the granules into a finer powder using a food processor or blender. 

If you prefer to work with solid unrefined sugars, you can use a fine grater to make the sugar easier to dissolve. Neither of these workarounds are guaranteed or foolproof, but they do help with the issue of texture.

Brown Vs White Sugar

Brown sugar is more commonly used to make dense cakes or cookies, whereas white sugar is used for fluffier products that have more rise. 

Brown sugar is also commonly used in sweet and sour or sweet and savory recipes, such as barbeque sauce. The flavor from the molasses has more character and earthiness that adds depth to sauces.

Granulated Vs Caster Sugar

Caster sugar, sometimes called baker’s sugar, is ground more finely than conventional granulated table sugar, helping it to dissolve even more quickly for baking purposes.

For recipes that require velvet smoothness, confectioner’s sugar is called for. This is table sugar that has been ground beyond caster sugar until it forms a fine powder.

There are no granules and it clumps easily, so it’s generally combined with cornstarch to keep it from forming lumps either in storage or your baking.

Types of Sugar – Final Comparison List

SugarTypeMain FeaturesRecommended Brand
Whole Cane SugarUnrefinedExtracted from the first crystallization of cane juice, retaining all the molasses Dulcie Organic Pure Cane Sugar
SucanatUnrefinedTrademarked name and process of maintaining consistent molassesWholesome Sweeteners Organic Sucanat Brown Sugar
JaggeryUnrefinedSold in solid cones or blocksRani Kolhapuri Gur (Jaggery)
RapaduraUnrefinedDehydrated over low heat to retain nutrientsBiona Organic Rapadura Whole Cane Sugar
MuscovadoRawVery dark and moist compared to other raw sugarsIndia Tree Dark Muscovado Sugar
DemeraraRawSome molasses removed, resulting in large, crunchy, light brown grains with a natural caramel flavorIndia Tree Demerara
TurbinadoRawSmall, dark brown sugar granules with slightly higher molasses content than demeraraIberia Pure Cane Turbinado Sugar
WhiteRefinedThoroughly refined to remove all impurities and traces of molasses for crisp white color, pure flavor, and dry, easily dissolvable granulesHappy Belly White Sugar
BrownRefinedWhite sugar that has had molasses added back inDomino Cane Sugar, Light Brown

Sugar Alternatives – Unrefined Natural Sugars

We originally began this article by stating that most plants have naturally occurring sugar, so you shouldn’t be surprised that you are far from limited to any of the options previously mentioned to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Many natural sugars are not processed at all or minimally processed, simply to ensure safety.

If unrefined sugars aren’t working for you but you’re still looking for something less refined than white table sugar, consider some of these natural alternatives:

  • HoneyRaw Honey is processed and refined by bees, rather than humans, using healthy natural enzymes instead of harsh chemicals. However, some brands go through further processing.
  • Maple Syrup/Maple Sugar – Maple trees that grow in cold environments produce a sap that can be heated to produce a sweet, amber syrup. If the syrup is further cooked it will eventually dehydrate completely, leaving solid granules of sugar.
  • Coconut Sugar – This type of sugar is extracted from the nectar of coconut palm flowers and then warmed only enough to evaporate the water, creating a syrup.
  • Date Paste/Sugar – Dates are naturally incredibly sweet and can be ground into a paste to be used as a natural sugar alternative. If maltodextrin is added, the paste can be dried and ground into more conventional sugar granules.
  • Traditional Molasses – Traditional molasses is not the same as the light, regular, or blackstrap molasses you will typically find in a grocery store, which is a by-product of the sugar-making industry. Traditional molasses will likely be called cane molasses or cane syrup and it’s made directly from cane juice. Some of the water has been evaporated to create a syrup and impurities are filtered out, but the sugar hasn’t been removed like in conventional molasses.

Natural Sugar Vs Refined Sugar

Natural sugar, when consumed along with the food it naturally occurs in, is processed much differently by your body. 

White refined sugar is more than 99% sucrose, which is a combination of glucose and fructose.

Glucose is immediately metabolized into energy in your bloodstream and fructose is converted into energy in your liver, which takes longer.

When you eat sugar as part of a whole food, you’re getting more than just sugar. You’re also consuming the various vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients from that food.

Your body has to work harder to extract the sugar, so you won’t have such an immediate increase in blood sugar or concentration of fructose in your liver.

In general, a slower, more natural release of sugar is more effective for your metabolism, which is why there is such a huge movement recommending the avoidance of added sugars.

Added sugar includes unrefined sugar as well as refined sugar.

Sugar Cane Vs Beet Sugar

Both cane sugar and beet sugar are naturally derived from plants, with similar processing methods.

To make sugar, the canes are crushed or the beets are sliced and then they’re boiled to extract the natural sugars.

This system is multi-leveled, especially with cane sugar, but ultimately a concentrated sugar syrup is extracted and crystallized, forming the tiny granules we know as sugar.

Nutritionally speaking, sugar cane and beet sugar are essentially identical. Purists tend to prefer cane sugar over beet sugar because sugar beets are well known for being genetically modified.

It’s very difficult, though not impossible, to find organic, non-GMO sugar made from sugar beets.

They do taste different though, and may act differently when used in your recipes, especially in terms of texture. 

Up Next: Sugar Cookies Without Brown Sugar

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