Brown Sugar Versus White Sugar: Which Is Healthier?

Most people are familiar with both brown and white sugar. They are the two most commonly used forms of sugar, and both are kitchen staples used for cooking and baking. Each sugar has a different purpose in the kitchen and a very different effect on the recipes they are added to. In addition to being a sweetener, both brown and white sugars are used to add volume, texture and tenderness to recipes. They also act as a natural preservative to keep foods fresher for longer.

What Is Sugar?

Sugar is made from sucrose, which is derived from either sugar cane or sugar beet. There are other types of sugar, that are highly processed, such as high fructose corn syrup or fructose, that are used in commercial food preparations because they are less expensive and easier to work with than the natural forms of sugar. Sources of natural sugars include fruits, carbohydrates, honey and molasses.

What Types of White Sugar Are There?

White sugar is available in a variety of granule sizes. Choices range from superfine granules used for dusting confections to coarse granules such as:

  • Superfine sugar such as castor sugar, are granulated white sugar particles with granules that have a superfine consistency. This type of white sugar is a popular ingredient in meringues because of its ability to rapidly dissolve when mixed with liquids. It is easy to create superfine sugar by simply placing some granulated white sugar in a food processor and pulsing for 10 seconds.
  • Granulated white sugar is commonly referred to as table sugar. This type of white sugar has a mid-sized consistency and the granules are fine to medium in size. This is the most popular sugar ingredient in many recipes. The golden brown color that this sugar takes on together with the toffee-like flavor when heated makes it a popular option for many desserts.
  • Decorator’s sugar or sugar pearls are coarse sugar that is made from processed granulated white sugar. They are large round granules that are usually used as a baked dessert garnish.
  • Another popular baked goods topping similar to coarse sugar is crystal sugar. The only significant difference is that it is pellet shaped rather than round.
  • White granulated sugar is ground into a powder and mixed with cornstarch to create confectioner’s sugar. Also known as powdered sugar, confectioner’s sugar is labeled with a number according to the amount of times it has been ground and processed. For example, a label of 4X on the confectioner’s sugar package means that particular batch of granulated white sugar has been ground 4 times. Powdered sugar is used to make meringues, icing, pastries and confectionary sweets.

How Is White Sugar Made?

White sugar is derived from the sugar cane plant or from sugar beet. Sugar cane is a grass native to tropical and subtropical climates. Both sugar cane and sugar beer contain glucose and fructose, two complex sugars that are combined to form pure sucrose. While many health experts disagree on which source of sugar is healthier, current research suggests that both sugar beet and sugar cane are of similar quality.

What Types of Brown Sugar Are There?

Basic brown sugar is available as either light brown or dark brown sugar. Light brown sugar has a milder flavor than dark brown.

  • Raw sugar is the sugar that remains after the sugar cane is processed and the molasses is removed. Most raw sugars are not truly raw, but are semi-refined to remove contaminants. Although raw sugar is the same color as light brown sugar, it has a coarser texture and slightly bolder flavor.
  • Demerara sugar is purified raw sugar. It has the same toffee-like flavor as dark brown sugar, but resembles the color of light brown sugar.
  • With a finer consistency than Demerara sugar, Barbados brown sugar is a purified raw sugar that is very moist. The color can ranges from light to dark brown and the flavor is very bold with a strong molasses finish.
  • Turbinado sugar is another form of raw sugar. Turbinado sugar is a coarse brown sugar that has been steam cleaned. It has a mild hint of molasses and toffee flavors.

How is Brown Sugar Made?

Originally, brown sugar was produced from white sugar that was only partially refined with some of the natural molasses still present. Today, brown sugar is produced from white sugar that has been completely refined. All of the molasses is removed during refining and then a small to moderate amount of molasses is added back in.

The refining process is what determines the color and texture of the brown sugar. The darker the brown sugar, the more it has been refined. Darker brown sugar has a more full-bodied molasses flavor than light brown sugar, which is less refined.

Brown sugar has the same level of sweetness as white sugar. Brown sugar, however, is less dense than white sugar, so to ensure sweetness is equal, it is important to firmly pack down the brown sugar. Brown sugar can be substituted in most recipes that call for white sugar. It will slightly alter the taste, adding a hint of toffee or butterscotch to the finished product.

When storing brown sugar, it is recommended that it be kept in a glass container or plastic bag and placed in a cool dry place. This can help prevent the sugar from clumping and hardening.

Which Sugar is Healthier?

It was commonly believed that brown sugar was a healthier option than white sugar. Today, most experts will agree that both are refined sugars and are so similar that there is no real difference between the two in terms of health. Brown sugar is slightly higher in calories than white sugar, but this is mostly because of the water that is present. The difference in calories when compared ounce for ounce is miniscule. When the volume of the two sugars is measured, brown sugar will add a few more calories because it is packed down.  The presence of molasses in brown sugar does add some minerals, such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron. None of these minerals are present in white sugar. Considering the small amount of minerals present in brown sugar, this is not likely to result in any added health benefits.

Bottom Line

When compared on a nutritional level, both brown and white sugars are very similar.

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