What’s the Difference Between Brown Sugars?

What’s the difference between the various types of brown sugar (light, dark, Demerara, turbinado, and muscovado)?

All brown sugars are sugar crystals that contain molasses, a dark syrup that’s a by-product of sugar refining, says Melanie Miller, vice president of public relations for the Sugar Association. The differences between various brown sugars lie, primarily, in how much molasses each contains.

Typically, brown sugar is made from sugarcane, rather than from beets (which are sometimes used to make white sugar). The process works like this: The sweet cane juice is extracted, then boiled until all the water evaporates, leaving molasses-rich crystals behind.

Demerara sugar, popular in Britain, and turbinado sugar—both of which are often referred to as “raw sugar” in the United States—are very similar to one another in color and texture. To make them, the molasses-rich crystals are spun in a centrifuge to dry them, as well as to remove excess plant material, leaving a coarse granule that’s lighter brown or tan in color. Edouard Rollet, cofounder of Alter Eco, a fair-trade food imports company that sells sugars, describes Demerara as having a mild molasses flavor. Turbinado, he says, contains hints of honey. Both Demerara and turbinado are good for sweetening coffee and tea.

Muscovado sugar (a.k.a. Barbados sugar), from Britain, is the darkest of them all and made by allowing the sugar crystals to dry under low heat, sometimes in the sun. (Muscovado doesn’t get spun in a centrifuge.) This leaves more plant material in the sugar, resulting in a very strong molasses taste and a sticky consistency. The flavor is overpowering for use in coffee but is sometimes called for in gingersnap recipes.

Sugars labeled simply “light brown” or “dark brown” are made by adding molasses back into refined (white) sugar. To make white sugar, the raw sugar crystals are dissolved in hot water until they form a syrup, which is then filtered to remove excess plant material from the natural sucrose. The syrup is boiled, evaporated once again to crystals, then spun dry in a centrifuge. Although there are no regulations dictating how much molasses must be added to the refined sugar to make light or dark brown sugar, most producers put about 3 percent molasses in light and 6 percent molasses in dark.

It may seem strange that molasses is removed from sugar only to be put back in, but brown sugar is made this way, says Miller, for consistency. Sugar producers can ensure a uniform product batch after batch, because they’re regulating the exact amount of molasses that goes in. Some in the natural foods industry, like Rollet, argue that the refining process strips the sugar of minerals. But the health benefits of brown sugar over white remain unproven.