There are so many myths and misunderstandings about the so-called "unrefined" sugars. A common perception is that unrefined sugars are not refined, not processed, and healthier. In this post, I clarify some common misconceptions about these cane sugars and explore a variety of unrefined sugars available to you on store shelves. There is a lot of information about unrefined sugar here but if you are short on time, scroll down to the end of this post to see the infographic "Unrefined Sugar Snapshot".
Clarifying Some Misconceptions
Misconception #1: Unrefined sugars are 'not processed’
Truth: The word ‘processed’ means to alter something from its natural state for safety, taste, aroma, convenience, availability, and/or consistency. All cane sugars are processed in some way, either mechanically or by temperature. In fact, unrefined cane sugars go through a great deal of processing before they become available to you but much less than refined cane sugars.
Misconception #2: Unrefined cane sugars are 'not refined’
Truth: The term ‘refined’ carries a negative connotation but it means ‘to purify’. During the refining process, sugar (sucrose) is separated from impurities naturally present in the sugarcane and soil. Sucrose is not chemically changed during this process. All cane sugars available to consumers are highly refined, but some more than others. The least refined cane sugars are referred to as ‘unrefined’ sugars. The only real unrefined cane sugar you can have is if you chew the fresh peeled fibrous stalk of cane which is filled with sap.
Misconception #3: Unrefined sugars are a good source of minerals, vitamins & antioxidants
Truth: Unrefined cane sugars contain trace amounts of micronutrients, such as minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants but unrefined sugars are not a significant source of nutrients other than calories. They provide about 4 calories per gram or 16 calories per teaspoon. They may be perceived as more nutritious or healthier than refined sugars but you would have to eat a truly unhealthful amount of them (100g or even a cup) to get your daily micronutrients requirement or the positive health effects from them. The calories and sugar content outweigh the advantages of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Misconception #4: Unrefined sugars are metabolized slower than table sugar
Truth: Table sugar is over 99.9% sucrose. Unrefined sugars contain over 90% sugars, being 80–90% sucrose, 2–7% invert sugar (glucose plus fructose), and the remainder is mainly water. Because enzymes in the digestive tract quickly convert sucrose into glucose and fructose, when it comes to digestion and metabolism, our body will recognize both unrefined sugars and table sugar like glucose and fructose. Our body can hardly tell the difference. The cane molasses in unrefined sugars add trace amounts of nutrients but it does not significantly increase their nutritional value, nor affects their metabolism.
Some unrefined sugars are produced by more sophisticated equipment and drying processes but most of them are traditional artisan brown sugars, produced in small batches for local markets with simple equipment and little capital using hundreds of years old know-how.
You should keep in mind unrefined sugar (90-95% sugars) is only slightly less refined than white sugar (99,9% sugars), but it is much less processed.
Put simply, their refining process involves collecting the cane juice, clarifying it and boiling its water off through slow simmering in open kettles. As cane juice is concentrated, a sticky dark syrup, called cane molasses, surrounds the pure sugar (sucrose) crystals. The color of the resulting brown sugars depends on the amount of the molasses they retain.
The processes used to refine and concentrate the cane juice vary with the manufacturer, but unrefined sugars are typically not centrifuged to remove the original cane molasses at any stage during their refining.
Types of Unrefined Sugar
Sucanat, which stands for Sugar Cane Natural, is not a traditional brown sugar, but it is an unrefined cane sugar produced by a drying process developed by the Swiss company Pronatec.
Sucanat is a registered trademark of Wholesome Sweeteners Inc, from Sugar Land, TX. Two companies - Frontier Natural Products Co-op, from Norway, IA and Now Foods, from Bloomingdale, IL - are also distributors of Sucanat in the United States. Here is what you should know about it:
According to the Wholesome Sweeteners' website, to make Sucanat, the cane stalks are crushed to extract the juice, which is then clarified and heated in large vats. Hand paddling cools and dries the syrup.
With about 13% molasses, Sucanat has a strong molasses flavor and a brown color. Even with its high molasses content, Sucanat does not clump, cake or harden as brown sugars often do.
Sucanat contains around 90% sucrose and 5% invert sugar (glucose and fructose). It provides the same calories as table sugar. It also has the same sweetness as table sugar, which means, 1 tsp of Sucanat = 1 tsp of table sugar.
Be prepared to adjust your recipe in case you are substituting table sugar or brown sugar. Sucanat does not dissolve the same way into batters and doughs, and you may have to add more of it to get similar results.
Traditional Artisan Brown Sugar
Unrefined sugars have many different local names worldwide: muscovado of Mauritius Island and Phillippines, rapadura of Brazil, panela of Colombia, piloncillo of Mexico, kokuto of Japan, and jaggery or gur of India.
They are produced in sugar mills around the world in cane growing regions, using hundreds of years old know-how. Traditional brown sugars are made on small scale for local markets with simple equipment and little capital.
Historically, sugar mills used to separate the sugars crystals from the molasses by using upright conical pots, and over a period of days, if not weeks, the molasses drained through a hole at the base of the cone, leaving sugar cones. They are still sold shaped like a cone or a block, but because they do not dissolve easily and need to be ground before use, today the convenient granulated form is more popular.
Details about Traditional Unrefined Sugar
They retain all or most of the original cane molasses around the sucrose crystals. They contain 8 to 14% molasses, which gives them strong molasses flavor and a very dark brown color.
As opposed to white sugar, which is made up of almost pure sucrose, unrefined sugar contains sucrose, glucose, and fructose. Typically, it contains around 90% sugars, being 75–90% sucrose, and 2–7% invert sugar (glucose plus fructose). The main remainder is water.
Traditional Unrefined Sugars in Liquid Form
Unrefined sugars available in the liquid form include cane syrups and cane molasses. Look for terms such as home style, open kettle, and original. The main difference between traditional molasses and the widely available molasses (mild, dark, blackstrap) you see in stores is they are not a by-product of the sugar refining process, and, consequently, do not have sucrose removed from them by crystallization. They are made close to cane fields directly from the cane juice, which is clarified and evaporated by slow simmering in open pans. Here are some facts about traditional syrups and molasses:
Cane syrup and molasses are created by the length of the boiling process. Cane molasses are thicker and darker than syrups.
Being generally a small, home-based practice in cane growing areas, few traditional cane mills produce them on an industrial scale.
The C.S. Steen Syrup Mills produces Steen's Home Style Molasses and Steen's Cane Syrup (see images below) in Abbeville, Louisiana, a city 150 miles west of New Orleans. Steen's cane syrups are made the traditional way since 1910.
Traditional cane molasses are sweeter and much less bitter than other cane molasses that are by-products of the cane sugar refining process, such as mild, dark and blackstrap molasses, because they do not have sugar (sucrose) crystals removed.
Names Used to Refer to Unrefined Sugars
Traditional brown sugar
Whole cane sugar
Muscovado (Mauritius, Phillippines)
Rock Sugar (China)
Traditional cane syrup
Open kettle molasses
In the United States, at the time of publishing, unrefined sugars cost 3 to 12 times more than refined cane sugars. One pound of unrefined cane sugars ranges from $3.50 to $12.50. On the other hand, refined sugars cost an average of $0.98 per pound.
Choose unrefined sugars for their unique molasses flavor, for their culinary roles, and for your satisfaction. Do not choose caloric sweeteners based on their nutritive value, as one is not much different than the other. Unrefined sugar is not healthier than table sugar.
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