What's the Difference Between Blackstrap Molasses and Unsulphured Molasses?

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Molasses is a sweetener many people use during holidays.
Image Credit: BURCU ATALAY TANKUT/Moment/GettyImages

Molasses adds loads of flavor and texture to a variety of recipes, including gingerbread cookies and baked beans. It has many uses in the kitchen, but that also depends on the type of molasses your recipe calls for.

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Here's what you need to know about the difference between blackstrap molasses and unsulphured molasses.

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Blackstrap molasses is thick, dark and has the lowest sugar concentration of all varieties. Unsulphured molasses is sweet and squeezed from ripe sugarcane — it's typically the variety you buy in the supermarket.

What Is Blackstrap Molasses?

Cane molasses is made in a three-step process that begins with the juice from mature or green sugar cane plants. The juice is boiled to concentrate and crystallize the sugar. The result is called the "first" molasses.

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The crystallized sugar is removed and the residue is boiled again. The mixture darkens as the remaining sugar is burnt or caramelized. What results is called the "second molasses." After more sugar crystals are removed, the process is repeated once again. The final or "third" boil produces the dark, concentrated syrup known as blackstrap molasses.

Blackstrap molasses isn't as sweet as unsulphured molasses, according to molasses manufacturer Barkman Honey. It's made from the third and final boiling of sugarcane or beet juice. Sugarcane and beet juice are boiled into a syrup to make sugar crystals — the kind you find in table sugar.

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Once the sugar crystals are removed from the cane or beet juice syrup, the remainder is molasses. This syrup is then boiled, and what remains after the third and last boil is blackstrap molasses. Some of the sweetness is removed in each boiling, and the remaining blackstrap molasses is thick and dark, with a bitter flavor.

That bitter flavor has its uses. Pulled pork and baked bean dishes often call for blackstrap molasses. This food ingredient also contains some minerals. According to the USDA, one tablespoon of blackstrap molasses contains:

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  • Calcium‌: 200 milligrams or 15 percent of the daily value (DV)
  • Iron‌: 3.6 milligrams or 20 percent DV
  • Potassium‌: 600 milligrams or 13 percent DV

You can choose from light molasses (boiled once), dark molasses (boiled twice) or blackstrap (boiled three times). All that boiling concentrates the mineral content, which is why blackstrap molasses has more nutrients in it than plain sugar, per the molasses brand Golden Barrel.

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What Is Unsulphured Molasses?

Going back to sugarcane processing, molasses is made from either sugarcane or sugar beet juice, which is boiled into a syrup. The sugar crystals are removed from the syrup, and the leftover brown liquid is boiled until it becomes molasses.

Sometimes, molasses extracted from unripe sugarcane is treated with sulphur dioxide to preserve it, according to molasses manufacturer Grandma's Molasses. This process can leave a chemical taste. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that sulfur dioxide is "generally recognized as safe" for use as a preservative (except on meats of vegetables meant to be sold as fresh food).

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Molasses processed from ripe sugarcane doesn't need sulphur dioxide to preserve it. Without the sulphur dioxide, this ingredient is able to keep its rich, light flavor.

Unsulphured molasses can be light, dark or blackstrap, as long as it hasn't been treated with sulphur dioxide. Most commercially produced molasses is unsulphured.

The first boiling of the sugarcane or beet juice produces a light, sweet, mild molasses. This light molasses is usually used to make molasses cookies softer and bread crustier. Light, unsulphured molasses is the most commonly sold molasses in the U.S.

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How to Use Molasses

You can use different types of molasses for different recipes.

  • Light molasses‌: Use it to sweeten hot cereals, yogurts and hot drinks, and as an ingredient in gingerbreads, molasses cookies, pies like shoofly pie, cakes and glazes.
  • Dark molasses‌: This type of molasses is good for baked beans, barbecue sauce and gingerbread cake if you like a stronger molasses flavor.
  • Blackstrap molasses‌: Golden Barrel suggests using blackstrap molasses in baked beans because it enhances the flavor and gives the beans their rich, dark color. You can also use it in cakes.

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Not only is it less sweet, but blackstrap is denser, which will alter the moisture content of a recipe. So avoid substituting blackstrap molasses for sweet molasses without a recipe to guide you.

Is Molasses Healthy?

Molasses is often touted as a healthy alternative to sugar. But hold on — blackstrap molasses does have more mineral content than plain sugar. Light and dark forms of molasses also contain minerals, according to Golden Barrel, although not as much as blackstrap.

Blackstrap does contain some nutrients, but it also has a bitter flavor. Molasses is considered a safe natural sweetener along with honey, maple syrup, fruit juices and nectars, per the Mayo Clinic.

While they may seem more nutritious, the vitamin and mineral content of natural sweeteners isn't significantly different. Use a natural sweetener based on taste, not on health claims, and use it sparingly.

Eating too much molasses, like any other added sweetener, can lead to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to the CDC. If you can tolerate the bitter taste of blackstrap molasses, and you use it in place of sugar, you will reduce your sugar intake. Use these sweeteners in moderation rather than as a way to reduce deficiencies in iron or other nutrients, per the Mayo Clinic.

Potential Side Effects of Molasses

There aren't many scientific studies on molasses, and those that do exist are limited in scope. Additionally, most use human cells rather than actual people as the basis of analysis.

One study analyzed a line of colon cancer cells isolated from people with colon cancer. The June 2016 International Journal of Molecular Sciences study showed that polyphenols isolated from sugar beet molasses had a toxic effect the colon cancer cells in a lab setting. This study used an extract, however.

A November 2012 study in the ‌Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry‌ also focused on human cells: It showed that sugar beet molasses and sugar cane molasses provided some antioxidant protection to the cells. More research is needed, however, especially with humans.

And a December 2016 study in the European Journal of Nutrition found that filtered sugarcane molasses concentrate helped lower blood glucose and insulin responses in people.

Note, though, that the glycemic index of molasses is 55, while that of table sugar is 80, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The glycemic index measures how quickly sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream.

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