So many types of brown sugar are available in stores across the country, and you might wonder which one is best. All of them are as sweet as table sugar and offer a cane molasses flavor, but how to distinguish refined from raw and unrefined forms?
This blog post is a guide to choosing brown sugars. To start, you need to know that both unrefined and raw brown sugars can only be made from sugar cane. On the other hand, refined brown sugars—which are the most widely available on store shelves—can be produced from either sugar cane or sugar beet, or they might even be a blend of both.
1) UNREFINED BROWN SUGAR
All brown sugars in stores are highly refined and processed, even the so-called "raw" and "unrefined," but unrefined brown sugars are the least refined of all. Most are traditional artisan sugars made on small scale for local markets using simple equipment and little capital. One type of unrefined brown sugar, called Sucanat, is produced by a more sophisticated drying method. Here are some quick facts about them:
Sweetness and Taste: Unrefined brown sugars have the same sweetness as table sugar (1 teaspoon table sugar = 1 teaspoon of unrefined sugar). They offer a stronger lingering molasses flavor when compared with other brown sugars because they have a higher molasses content—8 to 14 percent versus 3 to 8 percent in light and dark brown sugars, respectively.
Crystals Size and Color: Unrefined sugars are slightly coarser than raw and refined brown sugars. As the image below shows, they often have small firm dark clumps of syrup-coated sugar crystals. Different batches may have slight differences in color and flavor (second image below).
Unrefined brown sugars are produced directly from the cane juice: Sugar mills around the world, which are always close to cane fields, use hundreds of years old know-how to squeeze the cane juice and refine it.
The refining process involves three steps: The production starts by collecting and clarifying the cane juice and then 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. Hand paddling cools and dries the syrup. The color of the resulting brown sugars depends on the amount of molasses they retain.
Traditional brown sugars are not centrifuged to remove the original cane molasses at any stage during their refining: The processes used to refine and concentrate the cane juice vary with the manufacturer, but traditional brown sugars retain all or most of the original cane molasses around the sucrose crystals. Consequently, they offer a strong molasses flavor and a very dark brown color.
In the past, sugar mills used to separate the sugars crystals from the molasses by using upright conical pots: The first unrefined sugar was called sugar loaf. The molasses drained through a hole at the base of a cone. We can still buy unrefined sugars shaped like a cone (piloncillo from Mexico) or a block (panela from Colombia).
Traditional brown sugars have many different local names worldwide: They are called muscovado in the Mauritius Island and the Phillippines, rapadura in Brazil, panela in Colombia, piloncillo in Mexico, kokuto in Japan, and jaggery in India.
Sucanat stands for SUgar CAne NATural: It is an unrefined brown sugar produced by a drying process developed by the Swiss company Pronatec. It is called a free-flowing brown sugar because it doesn't clump, cake, or harden as other brown sugars do. Sucanat has dry, porous granules and doesn't dissolve quickly into doughts and batters, but it can be ground in a coffee grinder or pulsed in a blender to help incorporate it. Sucanat is a registered trademark of Wholesome Sweeteners Inc, from Sugar Land, TX, and here is their Amazon storefront. A variety of companies are licensed distributors of Sucanat in the U.S., such as Now Foods. It is certified organic, fair trade, and non-GMO Project Verified.
Unrefined brown sugars might be certified organic: Some unrefined sugars are made from organic sugar cane and processed, handled, and packaged according to the USDA organic standards. For instance, Organic Jaggery, Organic Panela, and Organic Whole Cane Sugar. Learn more about certified organic sugars in a previous post titled Organic Sugar: What Does it Actually Mean?
What's in stores? All unrefined brown sugars sold in stores are non-genetically modified (non-GMO), kosher, and suitable for vegetarians, vegans, and Halal. In the United States, unrefined brown sugar may cost 3 to 12 times more than regular (light or dark) brown sugars. At the time of publishing, one pound of unrefined cane sugars ranges from $3.50 to $12.50. I am often asked why unrefined sugars are more expensive than white sugar. The main reason is that they are usually made in small batches and imported from cane-growing countries around the world, such as Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, Mauritius, and Mexico. There is no production of traditional brown sugars in America.
Whole Cane Sugar =>
Hand Crafted Cane Sugar =>
Dark Brown Molasses Sugar =>
Light Muscovado =>
Dark Muscovado =>
Panela powder =>
Jaggery Powder =>
Okinawa Kokuto =>
Okinawa Kokuto Powder =>
Piloncillo Granulated =>
Learn more about unrefined sugars on previous posts:
2) RAW BROWN SUGARS
Certified organic light and dark brown sugars we see in stores are raw cane sugars. Just like unrefined brown sugars, they come straight from the freshly harvested cane, but they contain fewer molasses. Organic light brown sugars have 3 to 4 percent molasses and dark brown sugars about 8 percent.
Here is an overview of organic brown sugar:
Organic brown sugars are extracted from organically grown sugar cane. They are sourced, processed, handled, and packaged according to a long list of rules established by the United States Department of Agriculture—the National Organic Program or NOP. Learn more about the organic standards Organic Sugar: What does it actually mean?.
Organic brown sugars are produced directly from the cane juice: Raw sugars are made in a sugar mill close to cane fields. After the juice is extracted and clarified, it is concentrated and undergoes a single-crystallization process. As opposed to unrefined sugars, their crystals are centrifuged in a large perforated basket spinning very rapidly, much like a washing machine in the spin cycle, where the loaded laundry is spun and dried. During the centrifugation, the molasses is not completely washed off.
Most organic brown sugars are imported from South America and only one brand is made in the USA: Paraguay is the leading producer of organic brown sugar. America's only producer of certified organic sugars is Florida Crystals Corp. The company pioneered organic sugar farming in the country and owns a sugar mill in South Florida. Check their Amazon storefront here.
What's in stores? Any brand of organic brown sugar is non-GMO, kosher, and suitable for vegetarians, vegans, and Halal. At the time of publishing, one pound of organic brown cane sugars ranges from $1.99 to $4.32, with an average of $3.00 per pound.
Florida Crystals =>
Trader Joe's =>
Learn more by reading a previous post titled Raw Sugar: From Turbinado to Demerara, Find out Exactly What it is.
3) REFINED BROWN SUGARS
The most widely available brown sugars in grocery stores are not naturally brown. Regular (aka refined) brown sugars are simply a blend of white sugar crystals and cane molasses (or cane syrups). They vary in flavor and color based on the amount of cane molasses.
Refined brown sugars are made from sugar cane, sugar beet, or they might be a blend of both. As I wrote in a previous post, blends of cane and beet sugars are common because many sugar producers do not sell their products directly to consumers. They have their sweeteners sold and distributed by sugar marketing organizations, which may blend beet and cane sugar, based on price and availability.
From Sugar Cane
Three types of brown sugar from sugar cane are sold in stores:
— Light flavor and golden color: 2 to 3% molasses
— Dark color and rich flavor: 6 to 8% molasses
— Pourable: 2 to 3% molasses
Refined brown sugars are not produced directly from the cane juice: They are made in sugar refineries using crude raw sugar (see image below) shipped from domestic sugar mills or foreign sources. The production process starts with the removal of raw sugar impurities by remelting and filtering.
Refined brown sugars are made by 3 different methods: They might be brown all the way through, on the outside only, or free-flowing. It is not easy to say whether one brand of brown sugar is just painted or is brown all the way through. One way or another, both brown sugars give a molasses flavor to our recipes. Those methods use crude raw sugar as starting material, not cane juice.
In the Crystallization method, the resulting brown sugar crystal is brown all the way through: Brown sugar is made by redissolving raw sugar, which is then concentrated and recrystallized till a thick brown paste with sugar crystals is formed. It is then centrifuged but the molasses is not completely washed off.
In the Coated or Painted method, the resulting brown sugar crystal is brown only on the outside: Raw sugar is refined all the way to white granulated sugar (table sugar), and its surface is coated or "painted" with a small amount of cane molasses. This brown sugar is simply white sugar crystal with a thin film of cane molasses on its surface. Brown sugars from sugar beet are made through this method.
In the CoCrystallization method, the resulting brown sugar is dry and pourable (free-flowing): This process starts with extremely fine refined sugar crystals, which are cocrystallized (agglomerated) with cane syrup. Each granule of the resulting sugar consists of many tiny crystals that are held together by the syrup in a porous sponge-like structure. Pourable Brown Sugar has loose, dry crystals that are easy to scoop, spoon, or pour. It contains less moisture and weighs slightly less than other brown sugars. They are also known as free-flowing brown sugar, molasses granules, or Brownulated® sugar. The advantage of this refined brown sugar is that it pours easily, and does not clump, cake, or harden. Please watch the unboxing video at the end of this post.
Brown sugars might be from GMO sugar cane: Most sugar cane is non-GMO. Up until recently, it was one crop that had not been genetically modified. However, since 2017, Brazil has been growing GM cane. Brazil is one of the top cane sugar producers and exporters of crude raw sugar in the world. The United States is the second top importer of crude raw sugar, which is used to produce refined brown sugars, as mentioned earlier. Be aware that the sugar itself is GMO-free. Once sugar is refined, it no longer has any traces of GMOs in it. A sucrose molecule is identical whether it comes from GMO plants or not.
What's in stores? All refined brown sugars are kosher and suitable for vegetarians and Halal. Some are not vegan when bone char—animal-derived natural charcoal—is used to remove the color and impurities from sugar syrups. A vegan-friendly process used to refine sugar is called ion exchange resin. As I write this, the cost of light and dark brown sugars is $0.86 to $1.10 per pound. The average price is $0.98 per pound. Here are some cane sugars that are brown all the way through:
C&H Dark Brown =>
C&H Golden Brown =>
Domino Dark Brown =>
Domino Light Brown =>
Bob's Red Mill Old-Fashioned =>
Domino Pourable Light =>
C&H Pourable Golden =>
From Sugar Beet
Brown sugars from sugar beet are produced in Sugar Factories by refining beet juice to white sugar and then adding a film of cane molasses via the painted method described above. Cane molasses is used as beet molasses — the by-product of beet sugar refining — is not palatable, has a strong, unpleasant odor, and is mostly used for animal feed.
Brown beet sugar is made from GMO sugar beet: The United States is one of the only countries in the world that grows both cane and beet plants. Only genetically modified varieties of sugar beets are planted. As mentioned above, any brown sugar itself is GMO-free, as the sucrose molecule is identical whether it comes from GMO plants or not.
For more about refined sugars, read my previous posts:
4) MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT BROWN SUGAR
Misconception #1: Brown sugars are healthier than white sugar.
Truth: Our body can hardly distinguish between brown and white sugar as, chemically speaking, both are a blend of sugar (sucrose, fructose, glucose) and water. White sugar is made up entirely of sucrose but brown sugars contain sucrose and a small amount of invert sugar—a 1:1 mixture of glucose and fructose. Table sugar is 99.95% sucrose, but brown sugars have 88 to 95% sucrose and 2 to 7% glucose plus fructose (see image below for details).
Because enzymes in our digestive tract quickly convert sucrose into glucose and fructose, when it comes to digestion and metabolism, our body will recognize both sugars like glucose and fructose. The cane molasses in brown sugars add trace amounts of nutrients, but it does not significantly increase their nutritional value, nor affects their metabolism. Both white and brown sugars provide 4 calories per gram, 16 calories per teaspoon, 48 calories per tablespoon, and about 770 calories per cup. As the image below shows, their glycemic index varies from 60 to 64 to compare brown sugars.
Misconception #2: Brown sugars are good sources of minerals, vitamins & antioxidants.
Truth: Brown sugars are not a significant source of nutrients other than calories from sugars. Unrefined brown sugars contain minuscule amounts of micronutrients, such as minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants per serving. They might be perceived as more nutritious or healthier than refined sugars, but we would have to eat a truly unhealthful amount of them (100g or even a cup) to get our daily micronutrients requirement or the positive health effects from them. The calories and sugar content in brown sugars outweigh the advantages of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Misconception #3: Once brown sugar gets dry, hard, and lumpy, just throw it away.
Truth: All, except two, brown sugars tend to dry out after we open the original package. Even when we think we properly store in an airtight container or resealable plastic bag, they often clump, cake, or harden. That does not mean they have gone bad. Brown sugars have an indefinite shelf life as they do not support microbial growth and become hard simply because they have 2 to 5% moisture, which evaporates. Hardened brown sugar can be softened by returning the moisture to it as I wrote in a previous post titled Never Toss Harden Brown Sugar. Learn How to Keep it Soft Indefinitely.
Misconception #4: If a recipe calls for brown sugar, don't substitute for table sugar, and vice versa.
Truth: Any brown sugar—be it refined, raw, or unrefined— can be used as a substitute for table sugar in cookies and some cakes, but not for fine-textured and fancy cakes and desserts.
Brown sugars are used mostly to give color and a molasses flavor to recipes. White and brown sugars have the same sweetness but different tastes. That means brown sugar is a one-to-one replacement for granulated sugar in regards to the sweetness but not to taste and color. Recipes made with brown sugar will have a distinct molasses flavor.
Experiment to find the appropriate replacement level, but consider that table sugar and brown sugar have different moisture content. White sugar contains less than 0.03% water and brown sugars have 2 to 4%. Cookies will be less crisp, but chewier, whenever we remove a dryer sweetener and substitute it with another with higher moisture.
Brown sugars contain a small amount of invert sugar—which is fructose and glucose in equal proportions— and table sugar doesn't. But those small amounts have little, if any, effect on baked goods.
To help dissolve and incorporate unrefined sugars in recipes, grind them and sift the firm clumps of syrup-coated sugar they might have.
If you have any brown sugar in your pantry and a recipe that calls for table sugar, try an equal amount of firmly packed measure of brown sugar and slightly reduce the liquid content by one to two tablespoons.
If you don't have brown sugar but have table sugar and molasses, you can combine them for an easy substitute for store-bought brown sugar. To make light brown sugar, pulse one cup (7 ounces or 200 grams) of table sugar in a food processor with one tablespoon of dark (or blackstrap) molasses or a quarter of a cup of light molasses. For dark brown sugar, pulse two tablespoons of dark (or blackstrap) molasses or half a cup of light molasses instead. If a recipe calls for brown sugar, add the amount of molasses along with wet ingredients and table sugar along with the dry ingredients.
5) UNBOXING VIDEOS
1. If you're looking for a less processed sweetener, unrefined and raw sugars are for you
2. Unrefined cane sugars offer a more complex flavor and boost to your recipes
3. Unrefined, raw, and regular brown sugars can be used interchangeably
4. All brown sugars will give a molasses flavor to your recipe
5. One does not necessarily taste better than the other
6. Nutritionally speaking, one is not better than another
7. All brown sugars provide about 16 calories per teaspoon and a GI of 62±2
8. Unrefined and organic brown sugars cost much more than refined ones
9. Choose unrefined sugars for their unique taste, aroma, culinary benefits, and satisfaction.
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