There are so many varieties of “healthier” unrefined sugar cane varieties on the market today, and it becomes even more confusing because really, they are all quite similar and the process varies from different manufacturers! So, what’s the difference? Let’s find out.
To understand which of the cane sugars is better, we have to understand why regular white sugar is bad.
Regular white sugar comes from either sugar cane or sugar beets. The reason that cane sugar is preferable is that most sugar beets produced today are GMO.
Besides the fact that it’s highly refined and highly processed, the reason white sugar is completely nutritionally void is that all of the molasses has been removed. Molasses is a sugar industry by-product that forms during processing, separating the sugar crystals from the thick bitter liquid, full of concentrated in vitamins and minerals.
(As a side note: brown sugar is simply white sugar that has a small amount of molasses is sprayed onto it.)
How is unrefined cane sugar different?
Looking in the health food store sugar isle, you’ll find a lot of choices that look pretty much the same with funny names: rapadura, sucanat, panela, muscovado and so many more.
Most of these are made from crushing up the cane plant into juice and dehydrating or evaporating to form crystals. The processes vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer, and they get their names based on where in the world the sugar comes from. Their names have also changed meanings over the years, just to add to the confusion!
These sugars are only slightly better than regular refined sugar. Seriously, they are still processed. I would eat no more than 1 – 2 teaspoons a day of any sweetener – the less sugar, the better.
The benefit of these sugars over say, white sugar, is they still have the molasses, they aren’t bleached white and there is no bone char used (it’s vegan!).
Many of these sugars are labelled raw when in fact they are all heated to some degree. Products can be labelled raw when they’re not actually raw. It’s a marketing term like “low-fat” and “natural”.
What to look for
The dehydrated sugars tend to be better, as they retain more of the minerals and balance of sucrose, fructose and glucose found in the whole sugar cane. Evaporation causes some separation of the molasses and retains less minerals.
Generally, the darker the color, the more bitter (and less sweet) the taste, and less perfect-little-crystal-cubes, the better.
Sucanat is my top pick when it comes to cane sugars.
Sucanat stands for sugar cane natural, and is dried/dehydrated sugar cane juice. Sucanat is generally made by crushing sugar cane to squeeze out the juice, heating (usually low heat) and reducing to a thick syrup then dried to create granules.
It is not separated from anything, so nothing is added or taken out. It retains 100% of the sugar cane’s molasses. Both sucanat and rapadura are produced using mechanical extraction processes and are not centrifuged.
You can see just by looking at sucanat that it’s different to white or raw sugar, in that it looks grainy instead of crystalline. You can use it in a 1:1 ratio in recipes (although reducing the amount of sugar in recipes is also a great idea!).
// Rapadura / Panela
Second choice, after sucanat. Many people say rapadura is pretty much exactly the same as sucanat, with sucanat being the U.S. trade name.
Rapadura is evaporated (usually at low heat) cane juice. Panela is dried/dehydrated cane juice. The terms dried, dehydrated and evaporated are all used when describing panela/rapadura!
Both sucanat and rapadura are produced using mechanical extraction processes and are not centrifuged.
There seems to be different processes used depending on the brand. Always check the label to see how they manufacture it.
Rapadura is the Portuguese name for Panela. Rapadura is known as more of a brand name for Rapunzel sugar – they tried to trademark it but it caused a furore amongst Brazilians who see it as a generic term for sugar.
CELIACS: Steer clear of Rapunzel sugar, on the package: “May contain traces of wheat. Processed in a facility that also processes wheat (gluten), dairy and soy.”
// Turbinado / Demerara
Turbinado isn’t a good alternative.
Turbinado is made from evaporated cane juice, and gets its name from the turbine that spin the large sugar crystals, which causing the water to evaporate and the sugar to crystallize into coarse granules.
Turbinado can be considered a very slightly better version of “raw”/brown sugar – it retains just some (but not all) of the natural molasses, with the key difference being that the molasses has not been removed then added back in.
They are less processed than regular brown sugar, but not unprocessed, and have been centrifuged to remove some of the molasses, giving a sweeter sugar without bitterness.
Demerara gets its name from the region in Guyana where it originally came from.
Muscovado is a product of the Philippines, and can be used as a bit of a catch-all term for brown sugars, and can be either more like sucanant or like demerara. It usually has a sticky, soft, very moist texture and a strong molasses flavor.
// Evaporated Cane Juice
Avoid. Evaporated cane juice is generally the crystals that form when sugar cane juice is left to evaporate. There is no recognized standard for evaporated cane juice, which basically means the product could be almost anything. So, this seems to be an ambiguous term that I would avoid.
Jaggary is the choice of sugar in India, and is typically made from cane sugar, palm, coconut, or java plants. This is a good choice also.
Check out other posts in the series:
// Sweet Substitutes, Part 1: Sugar is Sweet Poison
// Sweet Substitutes, Part 2: 5 Surprising Sweeteners People Think Are Healthy But Aren’t
// Sweet Substitutes, Part 4: 10 Sweet Substitutes That Are Actually Healthy Alternatives
“The Various Names of Sugar” – Natural News
“What’s the Difference? Muscovado, Demerara, & Turbinado” – The Kitchn