Brown sugar, whether natural or refined, has little to elevate it over white sugar in the health department. Brown sugar's main differentiating factors include its appearance, flavor and slightly more minerals.
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Here are some of the specifics when it comes to brown sugar vs. white sugar.
Brown sugar has a strong flavor that makes it ideal for certain recipes, but from a nutrition perspective, it has no significant benefit over white sugar.
Differences in Color
It's easy to identify white sugar because it's white, and brown sugar because it's brown — but then there's a third type of sugar called raw sugar, which has a tannish, blond color to it.
Brown sugar and raw sugar are often confused. But the manufacturing process for the two is different — raw sugar isn't actually sold to consumers, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared it unfit for direct use because of its impurities.
When companies label their product as "raw" sugar, or sometimes "sugar in the raw," it's actually turbinado sugar, explains the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Turbinado sugar is not truly raw, as it has undergone partial processing to remove some of the molasses while retaining its distinctive flavor reminiscent of brown sugar.
Differences in Manufacturing
The initial manufacturing stages are similar across the different types of sugars.
After manufacturers grind juice from sugar cane, the juice is boiled until it forms a syrup and crystallizes. Spinning the crystals in a centrifuge produces raw sugar crystals, which are then shipped to a refinery, according to the Sugar Nutrition Resource Centre.
The end of the manufacturing process differs slightly based on the type of sugar the refinery is making. To make brown sugar, manufacturers blend white sugar crystals with molasses, giving the sugar its color and warmer flavor, explains the International Food Information Council.
To make white sugar, also known as table sugar, the sugar crystals undergo further processing and granulation to make the crystals finer, which removes the naturally occurring molasses, per the Sugar Nutrition Resource Centre.
Differences in Taste and Uses
The molasses in brown and raw sugar gives these sugars a slightly different taste, according to the International Food Information Council.
This might be a perk if you prefer the taste of molasses. If you like a stronger molasses flavor, choose dark brown sugar as it contains more of the liquid extract.
Here's the nutrition for 1 teaspoon of white or brown sugar:
- 16 calories
- 0 g fat
- 4.2 g carbs
- 4.2 g sugar
- 0 g protein
Types of White Sugar
There are 7 types of white sugar, as listed by the Sugar Association:
- Granulated sugar: Think table sugar — the stuff you keep on hand for when you need to add a teaspoon to your coffee or tea. Granulated sugar is also frequently used in recipes. It is recognizable by its white color and fine crystals.
- Powdered sugar: Also known as confectioners' sugar, this is the soft powdery stuff that gets its texture from being ground and sifted until smooth. You'll usually find it as an ingredient in cake frosting or whipped cream.
- Fruit sugar: Because fruit sugar has smaller crystals than traditional granulated sugar, it isn't as likely to settle at the bottom of a box of dried baking mixes. That's why you usually see fruit sugar listed as an ingredient on these and similar products.
- Baker's Special Sugar: With crystals even finer than fruit sugar, baker's special sugar can be used to create texture in sweets.
- Coarse sugar: As its name suggests, this type of sugar has crystals that are especially coarse, larger even than the granules of table sugar. These large granules resist color change or breakdown at high cooking temperatures, so they're ideal for confectionary recipes.
- Sanding Sugar: You know those colored sugar crystals you see on top of baked goods? That's sanding sugar. This is a mix of large and fine crystals that look as if they sparkle in the light.
Types of Brown Sugar
There are 4 types of brown sugar, as listed by the Sugar Association:
- Light and dark brown sugar: Sometimes brown sugar is made by boiling down a sugar syrup like molasses or maple syrup. Other times, it is made with a mix of white sugar and brown syrup. "Light" and "dark" refer to the colors of the sugar as well as their flavors.
- Turbinado sugar: This is a type of cane sugar that has been only partially processed, so it retains its tannish, light brown color. It has large crystals that are useful for recipes in baking.
- Muscovado sugar: This has a dark brown color and a particularly robust molasses flavor. Muscovado sugar is made up of coarse granules that are slightly sticky. It's made from unrefined sugar cane without removing the molasses.
- Free-flowing brown sugar: This is a type of brown sugar that isn't as moist and clumpy as traditional brown sugar. It's specially processed so it has the free-flowing texture you usually associate with white sugar but with the rich flavor you usually expect from brown sugar.
How to Choose Which Sugar to Use
If you're trying to decide between sugars from a health perspective, you don't have to overthink it: Your body metabolizes all types of sugar the same way, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
The idea that some added sugars are healthier than others — such as brown sugar vs. white sugar or even agave nectar vs. high-fructose corn syrup — is a myth.
Choose whether to use white sugar or brown sugar based on your taste preference or what your recipe calls for. When a recipe specifies brown sugar, it's usually because the sugar's taste and texture are what works best in that particular recipe, according to the Sugar Association.
- The Sugar Association: “Types of Sugar”
- Illinois Extension: “Sugar”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Are Certain Types of Sugar Healthier Than Others?”
- Oregon State University: “Processed Sugars Vs. Natural Sugars: What’s the Difference?”
- FDA: “CPG Sec 515. 400 Raw Sugar”
- International Food Information Council: “What is Brown Sugar?”
- Sugar Nutrition Resource Centre: “Sugar Processing: Growing, Milling, Refining”
- MyFoodData: “Sugar”
- MyFoodData: “Brown Sugar”