Natural Brown Sugars & Syrup Sweeteners
By Densie Webb, PhD, RD
Vol. 24 No. 7 P. 18
Learn how they stack up nutritionally with one another and with white sugar.
Americans are voracious consumers of sugar and often are looking for that next decadent, scrumptious treat to satisfy their sweet tooth.
According to the American Heart Association, US adults consume an average of 77 g of sugar (15 tsp) per day or about 60 lbs of sugar each year.1 Children consume even more—about 81 g (16 tsp) per day or 65 lbs of sugar each year.1 The majority of that sugar comes from snacks, sweets, and soft drinks. Guidelines for healthful eating universally recommend reducing sugar intake. However, that’s difficult for most people, so many sugar lovers are searching for more healthful sweet alternatives. Manufactured sweeteners offer low- and no-calorie alternatives, but they seldom provide the same taste or texture as real sugar.
Enter brown sugars—such as turbinado, muscovado, and demerara—and syrup sweeteners, including molasses, maple, barley, and sorghum. Alexa Bosshardt, MPS, RDN, a Florida-based dietitian, chef, and industry consultant, says these sugars vary in crystal size, refining method, moisture, and flavor. However, in general, all brown sugars are defined by the amount of molasses present in the final product and can range in color from bright yellow to dark brown.2 Despite this, Bosshardt adds that the FDA hasn’t defined the difference in percent of molasses between light and dark brown sugars, so the molasses content may vary.
These brown sugars and syrups often are promoted and sold as nutritious alternatives to the empty calories provided by white sugar, and they’ve been touted as remedies for everything from skin conditions to menstrual cramps. Ironically, in the 1800s, brown sugar was considered inferior to white sugar, as evidenced by this line in a cookbook dated 1884: “All brown sugar and moist sugars are inferior in quality: they contain water and mineral matter and are sometimes infested by a minute insect.”3 That claim has since been debunked.
But how do brown sugars compare with one another and with white sugar? The facts are a bit more complicated than either their good or bad portrayal.
Brown Sugar Lexicon
While most brown sugars are referred to as “raw” or “unprocessed,” the truth is they’re refined and processed to some extent to be safe for consumption. All brown sugars come from the same cane sugar as white table sugar, but they retain some of the molasses from partially evaporated cane juice. Any minerals or antioxidants found in these sugars are the result of molasses retained or added during processing. For vegans, who may be choosing brown sugars as a more healthful alternative to white sugar, it’s worth noting that bone char (made from the bones of cattle) is used in a filtering process in some white sugars, which means that because all brown sugars come from the same source as white sugar, some brown sugars also will contain bone char due to their processing. However, certified USDA organic sugars can’t be filtered using bone char. PETA provides a list of sugar processors that don’t use bone char.4
Commercial Brown Sugars
On a relative sweetness scale, granulated white sugar has a value of 100, against which all other sweeteners are compared. Brown sugars are slightly less sweet than white sugar. The brown sugar that clients and patients typically buy in the supermarket for baking starts out with the same raw ingredient as table sugar—sugarcane—and can be made by adding molasses syrup to boiling sugar crystals that are formed during the sugar-refining process or by coating white sugar granulates with molasses.5 The molasses is what gives all brown sugar its color. In other words, some brown sugar is simply white table sugar that turned brown because small amounts of molasses were added. Regardless of the production method, brown sugar usually contains at least 85% sucrose compared with white table sugar, which is 99.7% sucrose. Light brown sugar usually is 3.5% molasses based on volume. Dark brown sugar is about 6.5% molasses.6 Though neither are rich in antioxidants, dark brown sugar possesses twice the level of antioxidants as light brown sugar.7 “Brownulated” brown sugar has a large amount of its moisture content removed, leaving a sugar similar in texture to white sugar. It has a light brown sugar flavor, but it doesn’t clump or harden over time as regular granulated brown sugars do.
Both light and dark brown sugars provide about the same number of calories (15 kcal per tsp) as white table sugar.2 Because of its molasses content, brown sugar does contain minuscule amounts of calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium per tsp, while white table sugar contains none. To put the nutritional content into perspective, it takes about 100 g (20 tsp, 300 kcal) of a brown sugar to provide only 6% DV for calcium or 4% DV for iron.8 The biggest differences between brown sugars and white sugar are the taste and the resulting darker and more moist baked goods when brown sugars are used. Sandra J. Arévalo, MPH, RDN, CDN, CLD, CDE, FADA, director of community health and wellness at Montefiore Nyack Hospital in Nyack, New York, says it’s important to remember that “Brown sugars are still sugars.”
Natural Brown Sugars
In addition to the regular light and dark brown sugars readily available in supermarkets, there also are “natural” brown sugars, which are more likely to be found in health food supermarkets. But all-natural brown sugars have one thing in common with regular brown sugars—they all come from sugarcane and the color varies depending on the amount of molasses they contain. While all brown sugars have slightly higher amounts of vitamins and minerals than white sugar, which has none, Arevalo says, “The differences aren’t enough to make a difference in nutrient intake, unless you consume larger portions of these sugars, which is, of course, not recommended.” What follows is an explanation of some of the natural brown sugars on the market.
Turbinado sugar is a light brown raw sugar that’s slightly less processed than regular brown sugar. It gets its name from the process of washing it in a centrifuge to remove surface molasses.9 It has a light caramel flavor and usually can be replaced one-on-one for regular table sugar in recipes. Sugar in the Raw likely is the most familiar brand of turbinado sugar and often is found in individual packets at restaurants and coffee shops. Despite the name, it isn’t raw, unprocessed sugar. True raw sugar refers to partially purified sugar that’s soft and brown and is contaminated with soil and other impurities.2,10 However, impurities are removed from Turbinado sugar and it’s further refined. Turbinado sugar provides about the same number of calories as regular table sugar and only slightly more antioxidants.2,7
Muscovado sugar, an artisanal sugar also known as Barbados sugar, is made mostly in India, Columbia, and the West Indies.11 It has a moist texture and very dark brown, sometimes almost black, color. The brown syrupy liquid (molasses) created during cooking is left in the final product. Because the molasses hasn’t been removed, it has a strong molasses flavor, which Arevalo describes as “bittersweet, caramelized, and smoky” and has slightly coarser crystals than regular brown sugar. As a result of minimal processing, muscovado contains small amounts of calcium, manganese, potassium, and magnesium. A “light” variety, in which a small amount of molasses is removed, also is available. Both light and dark varieties provide about the same number of calories per teaspoon as white sugar.
What’s more, muscovado contains more moisture than other sugars, which can negatively affect the outcome of some recipes, especially baked products. The high molasses content also can alter the flavor of the final product. For the best results, individuals should use muscovado sugar only in recipes specifically developed for the sugar. The taste pairs well with chocolate. In addition to its use in several recipes found online for cakes, cookies, and brownies, it also can be used for making barbeque sauce, to sweeten coffee, in glazes and marinades, and to sweeten hot cereals, such as oatmeal. Muscovado works especially well in glazes because it caramelizes more quickly than refined sugar.
Demerara sugar is a sugar with a fairly large grain and an amber color. It originated from the British colony of Demerara, now called Guyana. It has a toffee flavor and can be used in place of brown sugar in recipes. The large crystals make a great crunchy topping for muffins or hot cereals. Demerara and turbinado sugars are similar and can easily be mistaken for one another. They’re both coarse-grained, light brown sugars, though turbinado has a slightly finer texture, is less sticky, and has a milder molasses taste than demerara.
Baking with any of these less processed brown sugars can be especially tricky, Bosshardt says, because of the crystal size and moisture content, which can differ significantly from white sugar. Be sure to advise clients and patients to check whether a brown sugar can be used in recipes.
Though not as commonly used as the natural brown sugars, plant-based syrups, such as maple, molasses, barley, and sorghum varieties are used as sweeteners and also provide antioxidant compounds not found in table sugars.7 Nutritionally speaking, molasses and sorghum syrups contain higher amounts of minerals and vitamins than maple syrup and brown sugars. Molasses is higher than brown sugars in niacin, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, choline, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and copper, but it’s also highest in sodium among the syrup sweeteners. Blackstrap molasses has the highest nutrient density but also the harshest flavor.
Sorghum can be a good source of phenols, antioxidant phytochemicals, and proteins, depending on the sorghum cultivar used to produce the syrup.12 Most sweet sorghums contain 20% to 30% sugar in the juice crushed from its stalks, which is clarified and concentrated into sorghum syrup.13 Sorghum syrup is second highest in choline, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and copper, and its sodium content is one-fifth that of molasses. Molasses, barley malt, maple syrup, and sorghum syrup contain the highest levels of antioxidants (much more than turbinado or brown sugar).7
Maple syrup also is lower in sodium than molasses, and it contains small amounts of mono- and polyunsaturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids. It has insignificant amounts of vitamins but ranks third for calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium. It also has the lowest glycemic load. Surprisingly, agave nectar, which seems the most popular of the plant-based syrups, contains almost no antioxidant compounds.7
“The syrups are most interchangeable for topical applications, such as cereals, yogurt, and in beverages,” Bosshardt says. But when it comes to baking success, she says it depends on several factors such as whether the syrup is high or low flavor, its dextrose equivalence (the higher the dextrose equivalence, the more reducing sugars are present, affecting the color and taste of foods), relative sweetness, and how hygroscopic it is (the tendency to absorb moisture), among other physical characteristics.
The biggest difference among these sweeteners is perception, Arevalo says. Any of these sugars and syrups are added sugars in the diet with minuscule amounts of nutrients per teaspoon. While none of these alternative sweeteners provide significant amounts of antioxidants, if they’re used to totally replace table sugar, they can add small amounts to the cumulative antioxidant content of the diet.7 Instead of opting for a “natural brown sugar,” Bosshardt recommends keeping molasses on hand as a pantry staple rather than relying on dark brown or light brown sugar. Rather than choosing a sweetener based on perceived nutritional superiority, Bosshardt suggests choosing one just like you would choose a fat or oil—the best one for the application and, if possible, use less.
— Densie Webb, PhD, RD, is a freelance writer, editor, and industry consultant based in Austin, Texas.
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