What Are Unrefined Sugars and Are They Better For You?
Google “healthy brownie recipe” and you’ll find a myriad of recipes on the first page that call for “unrefined” sweeteners like maple syrup instead of table sugar. With the availability of so many different sugars and sweeteners and the endless social media posts encouraging you to use “unrefined” sugars, you may be wondering exactly what are unrefined sugars and are they truly healthier than their “refined” counterparts?
What are unrefined sugars?
As the name implies, unrefined sugars and sweeteners are typically less processed than their so-called “refined” counterparts, and therefore retain more of the natural nutrients that are often removed in the more extensive refining processes (more on this later).
Keep in mind, the term “unrefined” is misleading, because even unrefined sugars and sweeteners undergo some level of refining. Unrefined sugars and sweeteners are simply less refined (although level of refining varies).
Unrefined sugar vs refined sugar
Before we dive into the health attributes (or lack thereof) of unrefined sugars, let’s take a look at some examples of unrefined sugars and refined sugars.
Refined sugar examples
Standard granulated white table sugar is usually the first thing to come to mind when we think of refined sugars. It’s the stuff that can be bought for a dollar a bag and that’s often used in commercial baked goods, candies, sodas, etc. Powdered sugar, brown sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup are also considered refined sugars.
Table sugar is harvested from sugar beets and sugar cane plants (which is why it’s often called “cane sugar”) and refined to remove all impurities and surrounding plant matter, leaving only pure sucrose.
Unrefined sugar examples
What are some examples of unrefined sugars? Honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and agave nectar are what most people are referring to when they mention unrefined sugars (and what those influencers you follow on social media use in their refined sugar-free recipes).
Minimally processed cane sugar—often labeled something along the lines of “organic raw cane sugar”—may also be considered an unrefined sugar. Less processing means the cane sugar retains a bit of its natural molasses, resulting in a tan or golden hue.
P.S. Both the refined and unrefined sugar examples above are considered “added sugars” —as in, they are not sugars found naturally in the foods and meals we eat, but rather sugars or sweeteners that are added to foods and meals/recipes during manufacturing or cooking.
A little sugar chemistry
It helps to have some basic knowledge on the sugar composition of these different sugars and sweeteners so that you can have a better understanding of just how similar to one another they really are.
- Table sugar: Your standard granulated white table sugar is 100% sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide (‘di’ meaning two) consisting of one glucose and one fructose molecule linked together. Glucose and fructose are single sugar molecules or monosaccharides (‘mono’ meaning one).
- High-fructose corn syrup: High-fructose corn syrup is composed entirely of monosaccharides. Instead of being bound together (as sucrose), almost all of the sugar molecules in honey are individual, free-floating fructose and glucose. The most common forms of high-fructose corn syrup are either 42 or 55 percent fructose. The remaining 45 to 58 percent is mostly glucose, with a tiny amount of other sugars.
- Maple syrup: From a sugar standpoint, much of maple syrup is identical to table sugar. The disaccharide sucrose makes up over 95% of the sugar molecules in maple syrup. The rest are free-floating, individual glucose and fructose monosaccharides.
- Coconut sugar: Like maple syrup, sucrose makes up the majority of the sugar molecules in coconut sugar–the rest is glucose and fructose.
- Honey: The main difference between honey and the other unrefined sweeteners is that it’s sugar content is composed primarily of the monosaccharides fructose and glucose, much like high-fructose corn syrup. Remember, these are the two sugars that, when linked together, form sucrose. There is a tiny amount of sucrose and other sugars in honey.
What does all of this mean? Well, only monosaccharides can be absorbed readily from the small intestine. Therefore, sucrose must be broken down into glucose and fructose during digestion. This means that all of these sugar sources ultimately end up as some combination of the same two monosaccharides—glucose and fructose—before entering the bloodstream. And for most of these sugar sources, you’re looking at close to a 50:50 ratio of the two. So, chemically speaking, sugar is sugar.
So, are unrefined sugars better for you?
To best answer this question, let’s address the main points from #teamunrefined in the unrefined sugar vs refined sugar debate.
Unrefined sugars are “natural”
A common argument you’ll see in favor of unrefined sugars is that they’re natural. “Natural” in the sense that they came from something in nature, like a maple tree or a coconut.
Well, even good old table sugar came from a plant—a sugar beet or sugar cane plant. See the picture below? That’s sugar cane, and it looks pretty “natural”.
Regardless, the word “natural” is not synonymous with the word “healthy” (this applies to many foods beyond just sugars and sweeteners). The terms “natural” and “unrefined” are often interpreted to mean unprocessed, which is why calling them unrefined is a tad misleading.
Sure, these unrefined sugars and sweeteners are often a little less processed than table sugar, but they’re certainly not unprocessed. Take, for example, coconut sugar. It starts as coconut sap, which is then heated, sieved, dried, weighed, and packaged in granule form—all processes. No matter how straight-from-nature a sugar is, it’s still sugar and should be treated as such.
Unrefined sugars have a lower glycemic index
Is it true that unrefined sugars, like coconut sugar and honey, have a lower glycemic index than refined sugars like table sugar? Technically, yes, it’s true.
Simply put, the glycemic index is a measure of how quickly a food causes blood sugar levels to rise. The higher a food ranks on the glycemic index scale, the higher and more rapidly it will raise blood sugar. Honey has a glycemic index of around 58, whereas table sugar has a glycemic index of about 63. This would lead you to believe that honey causes a much smaller spike in blood sugar levels than table sugar, which is desirable.
However, a big problem with the glycemic index is that it doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t take into account portion size, or how much of that food you’re actually going to consume in a sitting. For example, you may have heard watermelon has a very high glycemic index of around 72, which is as high as the glycemic index of a donut. That high number for watermelon is based on consuming 5 cups of watermelon in a sitting, which is nowhere near the typical serving size for watermelon.
Even if we were to consider the glycemic index of these sugars, you’re using such small amounts at a time (for example, a teaspoon in your tea) that the marginal differences in glycemic index are irrelevant. A better picture of how a food will affect your blood sugar levels is the glycemic load, which takes into account portion size. When you compare glycemic loads for the various sugars, you’ll see very similar effects across the board on blood sugar levels.
Unrefined sugars retain more minerals
True, again. Unrefined sugars are less processed, and, so, they do retain more minerals, antioxidants, and other good-for-you plant nutrients that are removed during more extensive refining processes.
However, the amounts retained are so small that to reap any health benefits would require excessive sugar and, therefore, calorie consumption. Take, for example, the mineral iron. A tablespoon of maple syrup provides around three times the iron of a tablespoon of table sugar. A tablespoon of honey provides 14 times that. Sure, that seems like a huge difference. Now let’s think big picture here. When you compare the amount of iron you’re getting from that tablespoon of honey, which is 0.09 mg, to the recommended daily value for iron, which is 18 mg, it’s like pennies on a thousand dollars.
If you wanted to meet your daily iron requirements by consuming honey, you’d have to consume around 13 cups of honey. Or how about a staggering 50 cups of maple syrup. Bottom line, you’d have to consume such high amounts of these unrefined sugars to obtain a significant health benefit from these minerals or antioxidants that any health benefits would then be entirely negated by all the sugar (and calories) you just consumed.
And let’s not forget, the amounts of minerals and antioxidants you’d get from consuming an appropriate amount of these sugar sources is nothing compared to what you’d get from your daily recommended amounts of fruits and veggies.
There’s just no sugar coating it. Sugar is sugar. In the unrefined sugars vs refined sugars debate, there’s no clear winner. Unrefined sugars—honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and the like—aren’t necessarily worse for your health than refined ones (unless you’re consuming them in excess because you think they’re healthy). And although you shouldn’t consume an added sugar for the purpose of providing minerals or antioxidants in the diet, the trace amounts you do get from unrefined ones can’t hurt.
However, they are still concentrated sources of sugar, just like table sugar. And consuming too much sugar, no matter the form, can lead to health problems. The goal is to consume added sugars in moderation—limiting when possible—and, if you do so, it ultimately doesn’t really matter which you choose.
Great article explaining the difference between the two in simple terms so those without a nutrition/science background can easily understand. I will be referring patients to this article if they ask me about this in the future!!
Thank you Allison! I’m so glad you found it helpful–please let me know if you have ANY questions!