So many myths and misunderstandings surround the so-called "unrefined" sugars. Most people have the perception they are, in fact, not refined. Others believe they are minimally-processed and even healthier than table sugar. In this post, I clarify some common misconceptions about those cane sugars and explore a variety of unrefined sugars in stores.
To help you compare common sweeteners to unrefined sugars, I show an "Unrefined Sugar Snapshot" at the end of this post. You can explore the differences between Sucanat, muscovado, table sugar, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, raw sugar, and coconut sugar.
Clarifying Some Misconceptions
Misconception #1: Unrefined sugars are not processed.
Truth: Unrefined cane sugars go through a great deal of processing, but much less than refined cane sugars. 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.
Misconception #2: Unrefined cane sugars are not refined.
Truth: All cane sugars are highly refined, but some more than others. The least refined cane sugars are referred to as "unrefined." The term "refine" 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. Chemically speaking, sucrose does not change during this process. Keep in mind the only real unrefined cane sugar we can have is if we chew the fresh peeled fibrous stalk of cane, which is filled with sap.
Misconception #3: Unrefined sugars are good sources of minerals, vitamins & antioxidants.
Truth: Unrefined sugars are perceived as more nutritious or healthier than refined sugars because they contain trace amounts of micronutrients, such as minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. However, they are not a significant source of any nutrient other than calories from sucrose. 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 outweigh the advantages of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Misconception #4: Unrefined sugars are metabolized slower than table sugar.
Truth: Our body can hardly tell the difference between unrefined and refined cane sweeteners as both are a blend of sugar (sucrose, fructose, glucose) and water. To draw a comparison: table sugar contains 99.95% total sugar (sucrose), and granulated unrefined sugar has about 97% total sugar (90–95% sucrose, 2–7% glucose plus fructose); the remainder is mostly water in both sweeteners. 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 sugars like glucose and fructose. The cane molasses in unrefined sugars add trace amounts of nutrients, but it does not significantly increase their nutritional value, nor affects their metabolism.
The Least Refined Cane Sugar of All
Some unrefined sugars are produced by more sophisticated equipment and drying processes. However, the vast majority 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.
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 molasses they retain.
The processes used to refine and concentrate the cane juice vary with the manufacturer. Still, a typical unrefined sugar is not centrifuged to remove the original cane molasses at any stage during its refining. All unrefined sugars go through a great deal of processing but much less than regular cane sugars.
The image below shows a typical production process of an unrefined sugar compared to other more refined cane sugars (raw and white sugars). — Image credit of Rapunzel Whole Cane Sugar.
Unrefined Sugars are Vegan
All unrefined sugars are vegan as they are not purified using bone char. Bone char (aka animal-derived natural charcoal) is cattle bones in granular form. It is produced by heating bones to 1300 degrees Fahrenheit and has been used to manufacture refined sugar for more than 175 years.
Some Unrefined Sugars are Organic
Unrefined sugars may or may not be certified organic. Organic options are extracted from organic sugarcane and processed according to the National Organic Standards. Read about organic sugars on a previous blog post titled Organic Sugar: What Does it Actually Mean?
Names Used to Refer to Unrefined Sugars
Depending on where they are produced, traditional brown sugars have a different name. Sucanat is a type of unrefined sugar produced by a more sophisticated process.
Muscovado (Mauritius, Phillippines) =>
Piloncillo (Mexico) =>
Jaggery (India) =>
Panela (Colombia) =>
Kokuto (Japan) =>
Rock Sugar (China) =>
Rapadura (Brazil) =>
Unprocessed sugar =>
Whole cane sugar =>
Traditional cane syrup =>
Homestyle molasses =>
Original molasses =>
Sucanat, which stands for Sugar Cane Natural, is not a traditional brown sugar. Still, it is 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. I list below some facts about Sucanat:
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. The moisture content in regular brown sugars (2–5%) is higher than Sucanat (0.5%).
Sucanat contains around 95% sucrose and 2.5% invert sugar (glucose plus fructose). It provides the same calories as table sugar (16 calories per teaspoon). It also has the same sweetness as table sugar, which means, 1 tsp of Sucanat = 1 tsp of table sugar. Their effect on blood sugar levels is similar, too (glycemic index around 60).
We should be prepared to adjust our recipe when substituting table sugar or brown sugar. Sucanat does not dissolve the same way into batters and doughs. It is lighter than table sugar and we may need to add more of it to get similar results.
Wholesome Sucanat is organic, fair trade certified, non-GMO project verified, vegan, and vegetarian. A variety of companies are licensed distributors of Sucanat in the U.S., such as Now Foods.
Traditional Artisan Brown Sugar
Traditional sugars are typically produced in small sugar mills around the world in cane growing regions for local markets with simple equipment. They have many different local names worldwide: muscovado of Mauritius Island, panela of Colombia, piloncillo of Mexico, and jaggery or gur of India.
Historically, sugar mills used to separate the sugars crystals from the molasses by using upright conical pots. For days, if not weeks, the molasses drained through a hole at the base of the cone, leaving what was called sugarloaf. They required the so-called "sugar nips" to break off pieces.
We can still buy sugars shaped like a cone or a block such as eSutra Jaggery and Goya Piloncillo. However, because they do not dissolve easily and might need to be grated before use (like I did here), the convenient granulated form is more popular. Check out the following granulated unrefined sugars: Just Panela or Origin Sugar Company Panela and Naturevibe Organic Jaggery Powder.
Traditional Unrefined Sugar in Solid Form
Solid unrefined sugars (granulated, blocks, or cones) 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.
Unrefined sugars contain mainly sucrose, but also glucose and fructose — as opposed to white sugar, which is made up of almost pure sucrose. They generally have over 90% total sugars, being 88–95% sucrose, and 2–7% invert sugar (glucose plus fructose). The remainder is mostly water.
Traditional Unrefined Sugars in Liquid Form
Unrefined sugars available in the liquid form include "cane syrups" and "cane molasses." To recognize them in stores, look for terms such as "home style", "open kettle," "traditional," 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 two facts about traditional syrups and molasses:
The length of the boiling process creates cane syrup and molasses. Cane molasses are thicker and darker than cane syrups.
Traditional cane molasses are sweeter and less bitter than other cane molasses that are by-products of the cane sugar refining process (mild, dark and blackstrap molasses), because they do not have sugar crystals (sucrose) removed.
Few traditional cane mills produce unrefined syrups on an industrial scale, as they are generally a small, home-based practice in cane growing areas. In America, Steen's cane syrups are made the traditional way since 1910. 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.
Unrefined Sugar Snapshot
To help you compare common sweeteners to unrefined sugars, refer to the infographic below. We can see common caloric sweeteners are mainly a blend of sugar and water, no matter how highly refined and processed they might be.