The Ultimate Guide to Unrefined and Raw Sugars

Updated: Sep 29

While spooning white sugar into your coffee, your kids sprinkle brown sugar on their cereal. And you recognize that familiar pang of guilt. You have been trying to reach for apples instead of chocolate and sliced cucumber instead of cookies. But this important piece of eating healthy feels difficult.

Is it possible to find a sugar alternative, you can actually feel good about it?

Even as a sweetener enthusiast, my mind spins with the infinite amount of sugars from this one plant – sugarcane. Instead of walking up and down grocery store aisles confused by shelves full of options, let me take the guesswork away. I've sorted cane sugars into three categories and I'm here to give you a digestible guide. One spoonful at a time.

Cane Sugar: Refined versus Raw versus Unrefined | Cane Sugar vs Raw Sugar | Cane Sugar vs Refined Sugar |  Refined sugar vs granulated sugar | Refined sugar vs unrefined sugar

You Should Know This

The term "cane sugar" means any sweetener derived, directly or indirectly, from sugarcane. It refers not only to dry sweeteners – granulated, cube, and tablet – but also liquids, such as syrups and molasses.

Because sugarcane turns into almost forty types of sugar, I created the chart below to make it easier to compare them.

Cane sweeteners come out of two facilities:

  • Sugar mills are close to cane plantations and produce the so-called "unrefined" and "raw" sugars, which come straight from the freshly harvested cane.

  • Sugar refineries produce the most widely available sweeteners in stores – such as granulated, brown, and confectioners sugar – which don't come directly from the sugarcane plant. Instead, refineries use what is called a "crude raw sugar" (more on that later) as starting material.

Which cane sugar is best? Compare refined, raw, and unrefined sugars.

If you're thinking: Is unrefined sugar better than refined sugar? What are the benefits of unrefined sugars? What is the difference between turbinado, demerara, and muscovado sugars?

Hold that thought for a moment.


What is Unrefined Sugar?

All cane sugars go through steps to remove impurities (= refining process). The so-called unrefined sweeteners are the least refined, as they retain most of the original cane molasses.

It includes traditional brown sugars – muscovado, panela, jaggery, and piloncillo – and those produced by a more sophisticated drying method, such as Sucanat.

How is Unrefined Cane Sugar Made?

How is it made?

Unrefined sugars come straight from the freshly harvested cane and then refined as follows:

  • Three steps: Put simply, the production process starts by collecting and clarifying the cane juice, which is then concentrated. As the juice's water boils off, a sticky dark syrup, called molasses, surrounds the pure sucrose crystals.

  • No centrifugation: They retain the molasses around the sucrose crystals and, typically, are not centrifuged. A centrifuge [picture a salad spinner] separates sugar crystals from the molasses. Raw and refined sugars have most or all of the original cane molasses washed off by centrifuging their crystals, but unrefined sugars don't.

Most unrefined sweeteners 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 come from organic sugarcane. If processed, handled, and packaged according to the USDA organic standards, they might carry the certified organic seal. I wrote a post about organic sugars here.

What's in it?

With 8 to 14% molasses, unrefined sugars' crystals hold a strong flavor and dark brown color. The sugar content runs around 90% sucrose and 5% invert sugar (glucose plus fructose).

How to recognize it in stores?

Depending on where they come from, 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 syrup or molasses is unrefined, look for terms such as traditional, home-style, open kettle, or original.

I invite you to visit my Unrefined Sugars page to explore all sweeteners I found in stores.

Or read this post Unrefined Sugar: 4 Myths and How it Compares with Common Sweeteners

What is Raw Sugar?

Raw sugar doesn't mean an unrefined, unprocessed, or "in its natural state" sweetener. Instead, it means a single crystallization sugar, because it is crystallized only once. After sugar crystals form, the original cane molasses is washed off almost entirely.

How is raw sugar made?

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.

  • Most organic sugars we see in stores are raw sugars made from organically grown sugarcane and processed, handled, and packaged according to the USDA organic standards. More on organic sweeteners here.

What's in it?

Raw cane sugars usually have less than 2% molasses, which gives them a delicate flavor and a color ranging from blond to light brown. They are slightly