Cane Sugar: Unrefined vs Raw vs Refined

Updated: Jun 19

The favorite and most familiar sweeteners are refined sugars—granulated, brown, and confectioners— but more than forty types of cane sugar are available in stores across the United States. We can buy them in refined, raw, and unrefined forms. If you ever wondered how table sugar, whole cane sugar, and raw sugar compare to each other, this post is for you.

First, What Exactly is Cane Sugar?

Cane sugar means any sweetener derived, directly or indirectly, from sugar cane. Here is what all cane sugars have in common:

  • Cane sweeteners = sugar + water: Any sweetener from cane is a blend of sugars (simple carbohydrates) and water. Their main component is sucrose, a double sugar. Their second predominant components are glucose and fructose, both simple sugars. Their water content varies from 0.03% (in most white granulated products) to 50% (in syrups and molasses).

  • All cane sugars are refined and go through a great deal of processing: The cane sugars we find in stores come out of two facilities – a sugar mill and a sugar refinery. Sugar mills are located close to cane plantations and produce the so-called "unrefined" and "raw" sugars, which come straight from the freshly harvested cane. On the other hand, sugar refineries produce the most widely available sweeteners in stores such as table sugar, brown sugar, and confectioners sugar, which are highly-refined products not directly produced from the cane. Instead, refineries use what is called a "crude raw sugar" (more on that later) as starting material to make our favorite refined sugars.

  • Cane sugar may be solid or liquid: The term "cane sugar" is used to refer not only to products in granulated (crystallized), cube, and tablet forms but also in liquid forms such as syrups and molasses.

What is Unrefined Sugar?

The least refined cane sweeteners are called unrefined. Most of them are traditional brown sugars, such as muscovado, panela, jaggery, and piloncillo. Sucanat is an unrefined cane sugar produced by a more sophisticated drying method.

How is it made?

Unrefined sugars come straight from the freshly harvested cane and are partially refined.

  • Put simply, the production process starts by collecting and clarifying the cane juice, which is then concentrated. As the juice's water is boiled off, a sticky dark syrup, called molasses, surrounds the pure sucrose crystals. Unrefined cane sugars retain almost all the cane molasses around the sucrose crystals. Typically, they are not centrifuged. Contrary to raw and refined sugars, which are centrifuged to remove most or all of the original cane molasses.

  • Many unrefined cane sugars are "traditional artisan sugars" produced in small batches and little capital in sugar mills around the world in sugarcane growing regions using hundreds of years old know-how.

  • Some unrefined sugars are made from organic sugarcane and processed, handled, and packaged according to the USDA organic standards. More on organic sweeteners here.

What's in it?

  • Unrefined sugars have between 8 and 14% molasses, which gives them a strong flavor and dark brown color.

  • A typical unrefined sugar has around 90% sucrose and 5% invert sugar (which is glucose plus fructose). The remaining is mostly water.

How to recognize it in stores?

  • Depending on where they are produced, traditional brown sugars have a different name: muscovado (Mauritius, Phillippines), piloncillo (Mexico), jaggery (India), panela (Colombia), kokuto (Japan), rapadura (Brazil), and rock sugar (China).

  • Sucanat (a registered trademark which stands for Sugar Cane Natural) and other similar products labeled as "whole cane sugar" are unrefined sugars produced by a patented drying process, which results in a sweetener that does not clump, cake or hardens.

  • To check if a cane syrup or molasses in unrefined, look for terms such as traditional, home-style, open kettle, or original.

For more information, refer to another post What is Unrefined Sugar, Anyway?, or visit my Unrefined Sugar page.

What is Raw Sugar?

A common misconception is that the so-called "raw" sugars are healthier, unrefined, and unprocessed, but they are, in fact, only slightly less refined than table sugar.

How is it made?

Raw sugars come straight from the freshly harvested cane and are highly refined.

  • Raw sugars are produced directly from the cane juice in a sugar mill close to cane fields. After the juice is extracted and clarified, it undergoes a single-crystallization process. Crystals are then centrifuged to remove most of the cane molasses.

  • Some are made from organic sugarcane and processed, handled, and packaged according to the USDA organic standards. More on organic sweeteners here.

What's in it?

  • Raw cane sugars generally have less than 2% molasses and, as a result, have a delicate molasses flavor and a color ranging from blond to light brown.

  • Their sucrose content generally varies from 97 to 99%.

How to recognize it in stores?

  • Raw sugars are also called turbinado, demerara, washed sugar, natural cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, dried cane syrup, dehydrated cane juice, less processed cane sugar, and single-crystallization sugar. See a video showing their names on labels here.

  • Their crystals size varies from medium to coarse. Coarse crystals are sparkly, light to medium brown color. Medium-size crystals (slightly larger than table sugar) are blonde to pale brown. The most widely available raw sugar is labeled simply as "organic sugar”. Read about organic sweeteners here.

Learn more on another post >>> What is Raw Sugar? or visit my Raw Sugar page.

What is Refined Sugar?

About twenty types of refined sugar are sold in stores. They go by many different names, but the most widely available is granulated (aka table sugar), followed by confectioners and brown sugars.

How is it made?

Refined sugars are produced from crude raw sugars.

  • Refined sugars are not produced directly from the cane juice. Instead, they are obtained from a crude raw sugar, which is not the same raw sugar explained above. Both raw sugars come out of sugar mills, but the crude version contains a high level of impurities and is sold only to refineries. A refinery is often located close to a waterway to receive raw sugar transported by ship from sugar mills around the world.

  • The production process involves the removal of raw sugar impurities by remelting, filtering, evaporation, and centrifuging.

  • Raw and refined sugars have the same basic process: concentration, crystallization, and centrifuging. The difference is a single cycle is used to produce raw sugars in a sugar mill. On the other hand, refined sugars are purified through a series of cycles in a sugar refinery.

  • Due to the use of synthetic chemicals to help remove impurities, refined sugars cannot be certified organic.

What's in it?

  • The main component in any refined sugar is sucrose, from 91 to 99.96% when in solid form, and from 50 to 80% when liquid (syrup, molasses).

  • Considered one of the purest food products, granulated white sugar (aka table sugar) is 99.95% sucrose.

How to recognize it in stores?

Fifteen types of refined cane sugar in solid form are sold in stores. They have several crystal sizes, molasses, and water content:

  • Based on the size of the crystals, white sugars are labeled as granulated, fine granulated, extra fine granulated, superfine (quick dissolve sugar), ultrafine (baker’s special, baker’s sugar, caster sugar), powdered (confectioners, with 3% starch), and fondant (icing or frosting sugar, with 3% starch).

  • Based on their amount of molasses, brown sugars are labeled as light (golden) and dark. “Pourable” brown sugar (Brownulated) is a refined brown sugar that does not clump, cake, or harden.

  • Coarse refined sugars include sparkling sugar, rock sugars, and sugar swizzle sticks.

  • Refined sugars in lump form are made from table sugar and brown sugar, which are first moist with water, then compressed or molded into a particular shape, and allowed to dry. They include white and brown sugar cubes, tablets, and gourmet sugars.

  • Liquid refined cane sugars include simple syrups, invert syrups, and light, dark and blackstrap molasses.

To learn more, read another blog post: What is Refined Sugar? or visit my Refined Sugar page.

What is the Healthiest Cane Sugar?

Cane sugars are an excellent source of calories from sugars. However, they are not a significant source of any other nutrient. One exception is cane molasses, which is a good source of minerals, but we do not consume enough to get the health benefits from it.

Compared to refined and raw sugars, the unrefined sweeteners have slightly more nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. However, the amount per serving is minuscule. We would have to eat a truly unhealthful amount of unrefined cane sweeteners (100 g or even a cup) to get our daily micronutrient requirements or the positive health effects from them. The calories and sugar content in unrefined sugar outweigh the advantages of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.

Main Takeaways

  • All cane sugars have mainly two components: sugar and water. Let's take crystallized sweeteners to draw a comparison of their average sugar content: 99% for refined, 98% for raw, and 95% for unrefined. The remaining portion is mostly water.

  • All cane sugars available in stores are refined to some extent, even the so-called "raw" and "unrefined". Unrefined and raw sugars are in fact, only slightly less refined than white sugars.

  • All cane sugars go through a great deal of processing, but unrefined and raw sugars are much less processed than refined sugars.

  • One sugar is not necessarily better than another. Each one is good for some applications and not to others. Each and every one has its own distinctive qualities, with essential differences that can make them uniquely useful for particular recipes. We should choose one over the other for reasons relevant to us — be it the unique flavor, the culinary role, or for satisfaction. We should not make our choice based on their nutritional value because one is not much different than the other.

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