What’s the Difference Between Brown and White Sugar?

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SugarSugar is an eternal dilemma for the health conscious. On the one hand, it is empty calories and does little to help your overall well-being. On the other hand, sugar is so dang tasty. It is natural, then, to look for ways to get your sugar fix while still making healthy choices. This motivation is why some people lean towards getting raw or brown sugar instead of the traditional white stuff, even if they are unsure on the exact differences between them. Fortunately, in the debate of brown vs. white sugar, this handy guide should give you the info you need.

Quick Clarification

Brown and raw sugar are both dark-colored in appearance and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, which can create confusion. For the purposes of this article, “brown” will refer to the type of sugar that has been mixed with molasses and has a dark brown coloration and a consistency like wet sand. “Raw” will refer to the golden-brown granulated powder that is the form of unprocessed sugar.

Differences Between Raw, Brown, and White Sugar

Understanding the exact difference between the three types of sugar requires a brief overview of how sugar is made.

When sugar cane is harvested, the plant is milled and grinded to extract juices. Crystals form in this liquid and, over a process of filtration and drying, are extracted in the form of raw sugar. In addition to these raw crystals, the slow evaporation of the sugar cane liquid creates the mixture known as molasses.

Raw sugar can be sold directly to the consumer or can get sent on to a refinery where both it and the molasses mixture are separated and ‘purified.’ The result is the familiar white sugar that can then be made into cubes, powders, etc. Alternatively, white sugar can be mixed back into molasses to produce brown sugar.

From this, you can see how the main difference between the three types of sugar is how much molasses each contains.

Are There Health Benefits to Brown or Raw Sugar?

Technically, yes, but practically, no. Raw sugar is roughly 96% sucrose and 4% leftover plant matter, so any nutrient value it has is from the minor carbohydrate content, which is indeterminate or random at best. Brown sugar tends to be anywhere from 5-10% molasses, which is where the main nutrient value comes from. On its own, molasses is about 46% sucrose and 3% protein, with the rest made up of small or trace amounts of calcium, phosphorous, sulfur, copper, zinc, iron, and B-vitamins. Some of this is carried over when molasses is used to make brown sugar, but the net result is minimal and doesn’t do much to offset the empty calories of the sugar as a whole.

To help put this in perspective, a one-teaspoon serving of brown sugar contains around 0.02 milligrams of iron. The daily recommended iron intake is roughly 8 milligrams—400 times more than that teaspoon can provide.

In other words, there is no meaningful health advantage to choosing raw or brown sugar over white sugar.

Bottom Line

If you are going to use sugar in cooking, then brown sugar is, in the strictest sense, the more nutritious option, with raw sugar coming in second. However, the actual nutrition values these ingredients offer is negligible at best and the caloric content is largely comparable. If sugar substitutes are not available, then you should feel free to chose between white, brown, or raw sugar as your personal tastes dictate. Just don’t go overboard, okay?

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