Without question, we all have a pretty good idea of what sugar is. White refined sugar, which is the most common form of sugar commercially found, is usually made from either sugarcane (a perennial grass) or sugar beets (a sort of tuber). The products are then sufficiently refined and made into the granular white sugar we all know so well.
There are, of course, countless sugar alternatives and substitutes, from the highly artificial (Equal) to the natural (Stevia, which also comes from a plant). But lately, over the last few years, we have been hearing more and more about something called Demerara sugar, which some erroneously assume is just brown sugar.
Unlike brown sugar, which is just refined white sugar lightly bathed in a bit of molasses (this is a good thing to know, as you can just substitute brown sugar for white sugar with a bit of molasses added), Demerara sugar is a large-grained, somewhat crunchy, raw sugar with origins in Guyana (a colony formerly called Demerara). Because of the rising popularity of Demerara over the years (with the European market being the early adopters, and the U.S. market slowly following behind) this particular type of sugar is now produced in Mexico, India, Hawaii, among other countries.
Demerara is a light brown, partially refined, sugar produced from the first crystallization during processing cane juice into sugar crystals (this process is similar to what happens with naturally evaporated cane juice). Unlike brown sugar, which has the added molasses flavor, Demerara has a natural caramel-like flavor; this lends warm, caramel notes to whatever you add the sugar to. Also, Demerara sugar is also referred to as Turbinado sugar in many markets, which has more to do with how the sugar is processed in turbines, than where it originates.
The Sugar-Coated Truth
Depending on who you ask, you will get a range of opinions on whether Demerara or Turbinado sugar has equal or greater nutritional value than white sugar. To help you decide, here is some information:
-1 teaspoon of white sugar contains 4 grams of sugar and 15 calories; 1 teaspoon of Demerara or Turbinado sugar also contains 4 grams of sugar and 15 calories. While these numbers are the same, it can lead some people to assume that these types of sugar are nutritionally identical.
-The Sugar Association—the group that represents the sugar industry—claims that white sugar contains no additives or preservatives of any kind, which is technically true, but comes down to a bit of wordplay. First, white sugar IS one of the additives used in most processed and prepared foods. As Nancy Appleton, PhD, author of Lick the Sugar Habit, so aptly states about refined sugar: “(it) is more of a pharmaceutical drug than a nurturing food.” While demerara and turbinado sugars have been somewhat refined, they are less refined than white sugar.
-Because sugar is a heavily sprayed and chemically-fertilized crop, white sugar and raw sugar can both contain residues of these harmful chemicals, unless you choose organic raw sugar.
-What isn’t present in white sugar is just as important as what is when comparing the white stuff to the raw varieties. By that I mean that white sugar has been refined to remove all of the minerals needed by the body to digest sugars, including: chromium, cobalt, magnesium, manganese and zinc. Demerara and turbinado sugars still contain these minerals. And, while their amounts may be small, some of these minerals are only needed in minute amounts by the body, but they ARE needed.
Also, it’s important to consider the nutritional impact of consuming white versus raw sugar when comparing them nutritionally. White sugar has been linked to B vitamin depletion and disruption of calcium metabolism, not to mention that more than 100 health conditions to which it has been linked. And, recently evidence surfaced linking the sugar industry to spinning medical studies so sugar would not be perceived as a factor in heart disease, although it has been proven.
I’m unaware of any research that assesses the effect of demerara or turbinado sugar on nutritional status or health conditions. However, I suspect that eaten in the same quantities as white sugar, it would have a similar impact. Remember: while these raw sugars are nutritionally superior to the white stuff, they are not health foods. They may be fine on occasion as a treat, but should not be found in high amounts in our diet.
If you’re vegan you may be surprised to learn that some white sugar is processed using bone char, which is used to make sugar whiter so I would be surprised if it was found in demerara or turbinado sugars.
Demerara sugar is actually far more delicious than your run of the mill white sugar, and lends complexity and depth to recipes, baked goods and even tea. Its crunchy, large crystals are a nice addition (added sparingly) to the tops of muffins, cakes and even cookies.
Have you had firsthand experience with Demerara sugar? Do you love it, or find it much ado about nothing?
*This post was updated Oct ’16 by Dr. Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, DNM.
Dr. Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, DNM is an international best-selling and 20-time published book author whose works include: Be Your Own Herbalist: Essential Herbs for Health, Beauty & Cooking.