give me some sugar info.
June 2, 2010 11:24 AM   Subscribe

What are the real differences in darker, unrefined sugars and white table sugars other than "processing is bad, mmmkay"?

I've heard for years that White Sugar is the devil. That "raw" unrefined sugars are the way to go nutritionally. I've even had people tell me that demerara and turbinado sugars don't promote tooth decay! (I have found nothing to back this up)

I like unrefined sugar and have been buying demerara (at considerable expense compared to the white) for years. Having recently researched the issue on the internet I can not find any reason why, other than taste and the fact that processing somehow equals bad, I should be eschewing white table sugar in favor of raw. Can anyone give me reputable links or sources for real data on concrete nutritional values/differences for them? Or can explain how or why there is a difference beyond the molasses contained in the raw?
posted by dozo to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Raw sugar is not sold for use as a food, because it's dirty. Demerara sugar, Sugar in the Raw®, and other forms of refined sugar have a more interesting flavor than refined white sugar, but no significant health benefits. In any case, fresh fruits and vegetables provide far more nutrition per gram of sugar content. The fructose that makes up half of the sucrose molecule has many ill effects on health when eaten to excess, regardless of whether a little molasses is retained for flavor.
posted by Ery at 11:35 AM on June 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's all just sugar. Anyone saying that it has any difference nutritionally or difference in terms of tooth decay is optimistic at best, crazy at worst. The small amount of molasses may increase the iron content slightly but otherwise it's sugar.
posted by GuyZero at 11:43 AM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

My sister the vegan won't eat refined white sugar because much of it is refined through the use of bone char, and thus isn't vegan.

I don't think I've heard of nutritional differences between the two though - even from my sister, and she insists on having this discussion every time I eat something with refined sugar in front of her : )
posted by CharlieSue at 11:55 AM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


What you want to know is the glycemic index (or glycemic load) of various sugars. If a reliable source says there's a significant difference between raw and processed sugars, then there's a significant difference.

That said, if you're eating enough sugar for it to really matter, the difference between the two is probably the least of your problems.

(Sucrose vs. fructose vs. glucose vs. HFCS is a much more significant distinction.)
posted by callmejay at 12:17 PM on June 2, 2010

I went on a tour of a sugar factory once. It turns out that demerara and brown sugar actually slightly MORE processed than white. (Sugar that is less processed or 'raw' is illegal to sell, as it should be - it's super dirty). When white sugar is made, they strip out all the molasses. When demerara is made, some of the molasses is added back in. For brown sugar, even more molasses is added back in.

If you want avoid the negative health effects of sugar, you just have to stop eating sugar, really.
posted by Kololo at 12:34 PM on June 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

Presumably sugarcane has ways of controlling bacteria that would metabolize its sucrose the way that streptococcus does in your mouth to produce tooth decay, and it seems possible less refined sugars would retain parts of such defenses that would be refined away, such as a special enzyme-blocking polysaccharide, say.

But it's a tough case to make.
posted by jamjam at 12:40 PM on June 2, 2010

Response by poster: Ery: Both of your links are enlightening and give me better info than I've found yet. The FDA link is exactly what I was supposing, that darker sugars are, in fact, refined similarly (though kosher and vegan) to white.

callmejay: If a reliable source says there's a significant difference...

The problem I've run into is that I've found few reliable sources.

I don't really ingest that much sugar; it's used mostly to sweeten coffee and tea. I'm paying 5 USD for 2 lbs as opposed to 1.75 USD for 5 lbs, and I just want to be able to make the choice of expense vs taste without false influence.
posted by dozo at 12:46 PM on June 2, 2010

False influence. Sugar is sugar, whatever small quantities of anything (molasses, mostly) 'less refined' sugar have compared to white sugar, would only become significant if you had a ridiculous (and unhealthy) daily ration. On the other hand, the different flavor might help you reduce the dosage. For instance, from time to time I put a very dark muscovado (from fair trade) in my coffee, and I find I use much less than white sugar.
posted by _dario at 2:38 PM on June 2, 2010

molasses is a good source of potassium, iron, B6, and calcium... I use it as a sweetener on its own for oatmeal/ cereal, because it seems like it's healthier than sugar, so I don't see why brown sugar wouldn't be slightly better than white sugar.

whatever small quantities of anything (molasses, mostly) 'less refined' sugar have compared to white sugar, would only become significant if you had a ridiculous (and unhealthy) daily ration.

A tbsp of molasses has 20% of daily potassium and 15% of calcium... so there would be more than trace amounts of that in a tbsp of brown sugar, anyway.
posted by mdn at 4:05 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

When white sugar is made, they strip out all the molasses. When demerara is made, some of the molasses is added back in. For brown sugar, even more molasses is added back in

All that stuff telling you that white sugar is bad because it's processed is a basic flat out lie for the exact reason that Kololo has given here. Here's some information from Chelsea, a big sugar manufacturer in NZ. Note that it's still marketing info and they're a bit coy about manufacturing for some of the products, but keep in mind that when they talk about molasses or syrup flavouring that's the stuff they put back in.

You can see how people get confused by the irrelevant answers being given here (like jamjam's idea, doesn't mean anything in this context because the sugar you're paying for isn't less processed in that way they think it is). In general the whole 'processed = bad' thing is just sloppy thinking from lazy people, it's a knee jerk reaction. It's also marketing speak on it's own (the ideas about not rotting your teeth are ridiculous). You're not finding authoritative sources because there aren't any. Your body breaks sugar down to monomers before absorption by the intestine regardless of the source, so anything with simple sugars in it acts the same way once it's inside you. So while there may be research done on sugar in general (and note the fructose thing is still controversial), research showing the health claims you're finding won't exist because they're based on a lie to start with.

There may be some small health benefits from the extra stuff added back in, molasses is high in minerals like iron, but the amount in there is not likely to be significant in any way. Much better to buy molasses itself and eat that (and even then the amounts of iron you get is small). Add on the very small amounts you're using and it's highly unlikely to effect your health either way assuming your body is able to process sugar normally. Buy your demerara sugar because it tastes better, or find a cheaper version that tastes as good, and ignore the omgprocessed crowd.
posted by shelleycat at 4:27 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

A tbsp of molasses has 20% of daily potassium and 15% of calcium... so there would be more than trace amounts of that in a tbsp of brown sugar, anyway.

A tsp of molasses is a LOT, it's really strong. There's no way there's that much molasses in a tsp of brown sugar. Plus putting it in tea chelates out most of the divalent metals anyway so that calcium and iron? Not being absorbed by the body.
posted by shelleycat at 4:31 PM on June 2, 2010

If you mostly just use sugar to sweeten coffee and tea, try some molasses in your coffee. I like it a lot. I have no idea if it's any more or less healthy for you, but it's tasty, in my opinion.
posted by cleverevans at 5:08 PM on June 2, 2010

I believe that molasses may also have iron. Kids used to be given molasses for health reasons.

But I can't imagine that brown sugar has much. It's just very tasty on your porridge.
posted by jb at 6:54 PM on June 2, 2010

I emailed my sister who is a registered dietitian and is working on her PhD:

The draw towards the "less refined" sugar is probably b/c of the molasses content which is higher in the darker sugars. Molasses is a good source of antioxidants. But then again so are fruits and veggies. So dietitian theory says eat less sugar (who cares what kind) and more fruits and veggies. I don't think special sugars are worth the $$. On the other hand, you could look into how table sugar is refined. If they use chemicals the refine/harvest the sugar that could be a selling point for buying an organic or vegan sugar.
posted by sanko at 8:20 PM on June 2, 2010

If you want to learn more about the distinctions between sugars and their health effects, read Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. Spoiler: there's not a huge health difference in the end.
posted by Nattie at 12:22 AM on June 3, 2010

Once upon a time, sugar was made like this: the sugar cane farmer, who was probably a slave owner, took a lot of cane and crushed it to extract the sweet juice inside the pulpy interior. This juice was not at all clean - it had bugs and bark and dirt and goodness knows what dissolved in it. So it had to be purified, which they did by repeated crystallisation.

The juice was poured into huge cauldrons which were kept boiling for ages and ages while a (slave) worker skimmed things from the top. As the juice got more concentrated the sugar started to crystallise out. These crystals were removed and washed (to remove the gooey black molasses). There was probably still some stuff trapped inside, so they put the crystals in another cauldron, added some water, and did the whole process again.

When the crystals were pure enough for the grade they wanted they would pour the crystal/syrup mixture into conical moulds. The syrup and remaining impurities would slowly drip out a hole in the bottom and the remaining crystals would condense and harden. This was a sugarloaf, anything from half a foot to a couple of feet high, and this is what the purchasers kept in their panties. They cut pieces off with sugar nips when they needed them. . Incidentally, lots of places have hills named after sugarloaves - I understand that they're usually extinct volcanoes.

So this is why there were originally different grades of sugar. It was hard to make really white sugar, and selling white sugar exclusively would waste a lot of the raw material, so they sold white, whitish, somewhat-white, brownish, brown and so forth. The white sugar was very expensive - in one of the Little House books the author mentions that they kept both sorts, and the white was very special.

At each stage of purificcation they'd take the waste and add it back into the system,\ but eventually the remaining syrup was almost exclusively molasses and pretty nasty - so they used it to make rum or for animal feed. Perhaps they gave some to their slaves - did I mention those? Using sugar originally meant endorsing human servitude. I hope the slaveowners' teeth fell out - slowly. Anyway.

Nowadays we have better techniques for extracting impurities and the process is quick enough that we don't end up with so many grades of sugar. So we simulate the old type of brown sugar by taking sparkling white sugar - the sort that they couldn't make in the old days! - and adding some carefully-filtered molasses back in to flavor our coffee. But it's really not very like the old sort of sugar at all, because that sort of brown sugar was concentrated cane juice with some impurities removed, not pure sugar with a smattering of molasses.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:23 AM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

... this is what the purchasers kept in their panties. They cut pieces off with sugar nips when they needed them.

I love it! Thanks, Joe, your typo has made my day. :)
posted by aimedwander at 7:38 AM on June 3, 2010

It only remains for me to say that the sugarloaf is often used as a phallic symbol in 17th-18th century slang.

"Sometimes I am a Cook, by troth,
And in Fleet-Street I dwell, sir,
At the Sign of the Sugar-Loaf,
As it is known full well, sir.
And if a dainty Lass comes by
And wants a dainty Bit, sir,
I take four Quarters in my arms
And place them on my Spit, sir."

--"The Jolly Trades-Men", collected by Thomas D'Urfey, Pills to Purge Melancholy, various editions published between 1690 and 1720.
posted by Pallas Athena at 11:57 AM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

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