Unprocessed & minimally refined sugars and whole-food sugars

Unrefined Demerara Sugar

Unrefined Demerara Sugar

by Cat, Feb 2008 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons

Minimally-Processed Sugars from Sugar Cane

See also Alternative Daily (22a) for a great article on the different forms of sugar, and Alternative Daily (22b) for a wordy sales pitch for the writer’s new book on the benefits of honey.

Rapadura & Sucanat Sugars 

NOTE, 2014 update: the minimally-processed Rapadura sugar is now called ‘Organic Whole Cane Sugar,’ due to a trademark dispute (19); but my recipes still refer to “Rapadura”.

Rapadura and Sucanat are brands of dehydrated sugar cane juice (un-refined). They are have the same level of sweetness as table sugar (substitute cup for cup in recipes). However, I believe they are not identical (although some sources say their methods are the same (19)).

Rapadura begins with raw sugar canes that are manually pressed to separate the juice (more refined sugars boil the canes to extract the juice; such high-heat process kills the live enzymes and vitamins in the cane). The water is then evaporated from the juice, not by boiling but by vigorous stirring with special paddles over very low heat (not above 145°F to preserve the live nutrients). The molasses is never separated from the sugar crystals. This process can be duplicated in your own kitchen, if you have access to raw sugar cane, and retains all the nutrients of the original sugar cane. Instead of calling it “dehydrated sugar cane,” I prefer to call it “Raw Organic Cane Sugar.”

Sucanat uses processing that separates the molasses from the sugar, then some of the molasses is added back to give it a light golden color, a process that likely destroys some, if not all the live enzymes and vitamins. (2014 note: this may no longer be true, but to be on the safe side, I don’t buy Sucanat if Rapadura is not available).

I can find no data on the glycemic index for these forms of sugar; I suspect they are the same as for table sugar. If you have blood sugar issues, these products will raise your blood sugar. You would be better off using stevia or other natural non-sugar sweeteners like Lo Han.

The benefit offered by Rapadura is that it is unprocessed and contains most of the original supportive nutrients and enzymes as raw sugar juice (and none of the refinement bi-products such as deoxysugars, which may play a role in polio infection). These supportive nutrients could help the body digest and assimilate the sugar in a more balanced way (although overconsumption will work against that advantage).  Many of my recipes cite this type of sugar, but for most, I also provide a stevia alternative, which I think is better for someone with compromised sugar metabolism.

Other “evaporated sugar cane juice” products, such as Demerara, Turbinado & Muscovado

These products may evaporate the product using high heat (above 145°F), which kills the live enzymes and vitamins in the cane. They may also use damaging process to crystalize the sugar. During the processing, the molasses is removed, then added back after processing is complete. This makes these products much the same as table sugar or light brown sugar.

Their only advantages over table sugar are: 1. They have not been bleached, and 2. They are not GMO like table sugar from sugar beets (as of this writing).

Whole sugar cane

Whole sugar cane is perhaps the best source of sugar, but is hard to come by in regions where sugar cane is not grown.

If its juice has been manually pressed (not pressed mechanically at high temperatures, nor boiled to evaporate the juice), it has all the same nutritional benefits of Rapadura.

You can buy the whole cane and a juicer on the internet (search for ‘sugar cane’ ‘sugar cane juice’ or ‘sugar cane extractor’ but that is a mechanical separation method that may jar the nutrient quality). Possible sources might be Alibaba.com and MojitoCompany.com; however, the latter sells canned cane juice, which kills the enzymes.

Coconut Crystals (Coconut Palm Sugar

See ‘alternative sugars’ below.

Alternative Sugars

Many other dietary sugar products have existed for millenia.  Many of these products, are not as processed as white and brown sugar, and indeed, many of them are rich in other beneficial nutrients.  I do not discuss all of the available products here; refer to the Wellness Interactive website for more on alternative sugars.


Replace 1 cup sugar with 3/4 cup honey, and reduce liquids by 2 – 4 tablespoons.  Honey is more than twice as sweet, and more caloric than table sugar; it is also more acidic than sugar, so add a pinch of baking soda to neutralize the acid.  Also reduce cooking temperature by 25 degrees (5).

A product made by bees from the nectar of flowers, raw honey is loaded with active enzymes, vitamins and many minerals, and may have some anti-bacterial and disinfectant properties.  When applied to the skin, it is moisturizing.

It is best to use raw honey, for many reasons: it has more vital nutrients and is typically made locally. Honey gathered from your local area is reported to help build up the body’s immunities to local allergens (5).

While honey has the same simple sugars as table sugar; that is, 50% fructose and 50% glucose, they are different: in table sugar, each fructose is bound to a glucose to form a molecule of sucrose; in honey, the fructose and glucose are free (unattached).

A surprising fact: honey has a higher glycemic index than table sugar (a measure of total rise in a person’s blood sugar level following consumption of the food); yet when used by type-2 diabetics, honey causes a significantly slower rise in blood sugar, giving it a lower effective glycemic index for diabetics. Interesting indeed! (5)

To liquify honey that has sugared, place the container in a bath of simmering water and allow to it to warm gently.

NOTE: as farming of GMO canola has rapidly spread across the country, local bees feed on the nectar of the canola blossoms, then bring the GMO content and the herbicide sprays applied to the canola, back to the hives. It is believed that this may play a role in colony collapse disorder that is killing our honey bees.

A friend of mine who keeps honey bees, noted a major change in the quality of her honey after a neighbor planted GMO canola in a field near her hives. The honey made from the GMO nectar crystallizes right away and thus cannot be used or sold as honey. She firmly believes the GMO canola is the culprit, and I agree, but more research needs to be done on this effect.

For description of different types of honey, refer to the BreadBeckers website.

Malted Barley Syrup

Replace 1 cup sugar with 2 cups malted barley syrup – it is half as sweet as table sugar, because it has mostly glucose. (3)

This ancient sweetener is made from sprouted (malted) barley. The sprouting process produces enzymes that break down the starches in barley to maltose, a disaccharide of glucose (table sugar or sucrose, is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose).

I was surprised to learn it does not cause blood sugar spiking; and because it doesn’t contain fructose, it is considered less detrimental on the body.

Maple Syrup

Replace 1 cup sugar with  1/2 – 2/3 cup Grade-B maple syrup – it is about twice as sweet as sugar. (3)

This is my favorite natural, minimally-processed sugar for foods that will be cooked/baked.  It is made by reducing sap from maple trees and then boiled until much of the water has evaporated.  Unfortunately, the boiling process denatures the enzymes; I hold out hope someone will develop a syrup without boiling.

It comes in two grades:  Grade A is used for pancake syrup; grade B is used for baking, and has higher nutritive value.

Maple syrup provides a bit of moisture, so for recipes with no other substitutions, reduce liquids by 3 Tbsp per cup sugar (3).  Whole wheat flour requires more moisture than white flour, so if you are replacing white with whole wheat flour and sugar with maple syrup, you will not need to reduce the liquids in the recipe.

In addition to being sweet, maple syrup also provides the minerals potassium, calcium, magnesium and manganese; vitamins A, Biotin, Niacin, Folic Acid, Pantothenic Acid (B5), Pyridoxine (B6), Riboflavin (B2); and amino acids. However, despite this nutrient profile, maple syrup has a similar glycemic index to table sugar, and should be used in moderation.


  • Regular molasses: replace 1 cup sugar with 1 – 1 1/4 cup regular molasses – it has similar sweetness to table sugar.
  • Blackstrap molasses: replace 1 cup sugar with 1 1/3 cup blackstrap – it is not quite as sweet as sugar.
  • For both regular and blackstrap molasses, reduce liquids by 1 – 2 Tbsp

A thick, syrupy liquid, molasses (treacle in old English) is a biproduct of sugar production from sugarcane or sugar beets. Beet molasses is unpalatable (highly bitter, due to presence of oxalates), but used in animal feed. Sucrose is the predominate sugar in sugarcane molasses; small amounts of glucose and fructose are also present.

Blackstrap molasses (third grade, from sugarcane) is the richest in non-sugar nutrients; it provides significant amounts of the calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron, and smaller amounts of copper, selenium and pyroxidine (vitamin B6).  If the processing of the cane juices does not include high heat, molasses can also contain trace active enzymes and proteins.

Most commercial molasses is treated with sulfur dioxide as a preserving agent (Sulfur dioxide is also used to preserve many dried fruits).  Unsulfured molasses is available in most Natural Foods stores.


Replace 1 cup sugar with 1 cup sorghum, and reduce liquids by 1 – 2 Tbsp – it has similar sweetness to table sugar.

A thick, syrupy liquid, sweet sorghum resembles molasses in look and texture, but is made from a different type of plant.  Molasses is made from sugar cane; sorghum is made from the sorghum plant, a cereal grass, and is more golden in color. Sorghum was introduced to the US by African slaves, and is a common ingredient in many soul-food recipes.  Blackstrap molasses is a good substitute.

As a grain, sorghum is favored by gluten-intolerant people as a porridge.

Up here in Montana, we are very familiar with a species of sorghum: Johnson Grass, and consider it a noxious weed.  It is not used to make sweet sorghum.

Coconut Crystals, Nectar (Coconut palm sugar)

Replace 1 cup sugar with 1 cup coconut crystals  – it has similar sweetness to table sugar, but has a strong molasses flavor, in my opinion.

Coconut crystals are derived from the sap, not the nut, of the sago palm (coconut palm) tree. (In this aspect, it is similar to maple sugar, which is from the sap of certain maple trees). It is the traditional sweetener used for “thousands of years in the South and South-East Asian regions where the coconut palm is in abundant supply.” (20)

According to Nature’s Blessings: Coconut Sugar (20), it is comprised roughly 12 – 18% sugars, of which almost 90% is sucrose (table sugar), and about 4% is a 1:1 mix of glucose and fructose. In my experience, it is higher in molasses flavor than Rapadura sugar.

The crystals are high in vitamins, amino acids and other nutrients which together comprise the majority of its content. This high level of other nutrients (or perhaps the method of testing) is the reason this sweetener may have a low glycemic index (GI) of 35. Glycemic index is a measure of how quickly a substance raises blood sugar in healthy individuals.  For reference, the GI of sucrose (table sugar) is 68, and of glucose (blood sugar) is 100.

The method for extracting the sap and making sugar/nectar is similar to that used for maple and birch trees, which was discussed at an ESP gathering in October 2011 (see essentialstuff.org for gathering summary of this event). Similar to, but different than, coconut sap, birch sap yields a sweetener known as xylitol (see below).

Sweet Dairy Whey (Bob’s Red Mill Brand)

I consider Bob’s Red Mill brand of Sweet Dairy Whey to be a minimally processed sugar, but they no longer make it. I’m not sure other brands are minimally processed, so don’t include them here. See Processed Sugars (about) for Sweet Dairy Whey.

In baking, replace up to ⅓ of the total sugar with sweet dairy whey.

This is a byproduct of cheese making (Bob’s Red Mill brand is primarily from Tillamook Cheese), and contains lactose (milk sugar). Lactose is a disaccharide comprised of glucose and galactose. This product also contains the non-concentrated proteins in whey – the watery fraction of milk (as opposed to the fatty, or cream, fraction). Whey is a desirable dietary protein, although sweet dairy whey does not contain much of it.

The whey fraction of milk is also rich in minerals, which are retained in sweet dairy whey. However the actual minerals are not listed on the label (because they are part of the whole food). According to Science Direct (21), the typical minerals are: calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, zinc, iron, copper, and manganese.

Important note: For those who are lactose intolerant, I do not recommend using this sweetener.

I only consider the Sweet Dairy Whey from Bob’s Red Mill to be a minimally-processed sugar. One of the other brands, Land-of-Lakes is suspected to use milk from CAFO (confinement animal feeding operation) cows who are fed GMO corn/soy feed. The Tillamook dairy cows are fed on natural pasture, both during milking season and and non-milking season for each cow.

Other products labeled “whey” or “whey protein” are not the same as sweet dairy whey and usually have the lactose removed.

Because the Bob’s Red Mill product is primarily lactose, it can be used as a substitute for table sugar when sweetening beverages (for example). In baking, you can use up to ⅓ of the total sugar as sweet dairy whey. For example, if your recipe calls for 1 ½ cups sugar, you can substitute up to ½ cup with sweet dairy whey.

Although this product is primarily sugar, the type of sugar (lactose) is a food source for your gut’s probiotics, who turn it into lactic acid instead of its simple sugars. Lactic acid is basically a zero-calorie substance important for liver functioning; the simple sugars are not zero-calorie. When you consume sweet dairy whey, unless your gut microbes are compromised, you don’t need to count all the sugar calories because the majority of the lactose is not broken down into simple sugars. I count only 10% of the total sugar calories.

Date ‘sugar’

This is a whole-food sweetener, made by grinding dehydrated dates (the fruit of the date palm). While it can be used as brown sugar in baked goods, it doesn’t dissolve well. The best use is in ‘crisp’ toppings as for Apple Crisp or streusel, where undissolved sugar is the best. Another good use is in granola. Or sprinkle it on a bowl of porridge.

It adds a rich sweetness to recipes, but it doesn’t behave quite the same as sugar. For example, it does not dissolve when added to batters or beverages, and it doesn’t melt like granulated sugar, so cannot be used to make caramel.

Most of the sugar in dates is sucrose, just like cane sugar, but because date sugar is a whole food, it comes with enzymes, cofactors, vitamins, minerals and fiber that help slow the absorption of the sugar.

Agave Syrup/Nectar

I do not advise using this product. It is higher in free-fructose than table sugar, which can wreak havoc on the liver over time, and is no longer recommended for people with diabetes, for this reason.

The natural version (called aguamiel) is a honey-like liquid derived from the sap of the ripe agave cactus, but it is sweeter than honey and sugar, so you use less (substitute ⅓ cup aguamiel for 1 cup sugar). Also reduce liquids by 1 – 2 Tbsp.  It is low on the glycemic scale and does not stimulate insulin secretion (3). 

However, commercial agave nectar is not derived from the sap; rather the agave piña (from which the leaves grow) is first ground up, then mixed with enzymes and GMO-bacteria to break down the starches and fibers to glucose and fructose. It is a highly processed sugar high in fructose, and I do not recommend it.

Agave nectar is up to 90% free fructose, which explains its low glycemic index; but this also makes it troubling if used to any significant degree.  Fructose has an adverse effect on lipid (fat) metabolism, but only absorbed as single fructose molecules. In fact, in July 2011, the Glycemic Research Institute has declared agave as ‘unsafe for people with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and pre-diabetes.” See their Agave Report for more. I go one step further and would not recommend agave nectar/syrup for anyone, as it has been shown to induce insulin resistance in those who had not been insulin resistant prior to using agave, the same as HFCS.

The best way to consume fructose is fructan chains (a type of fiber known as FOS and inulin) as in natural aguamiel. In fructan chains, the fructose molecules cannot be freed from these chains for absorption, because we do not have enzymes to do this.  Instead, the chains are converted to short-chain fatty acids (by lacto-bacteria in our gut).  These fatty acids are very beneficial for liver function.

The agave sap is rich in fructans (inulin) which is broken down by the good lax-bacteria in your gut; however, the commercial processing of the piña to make commercial agave nectar hydrolyzes the fructans to release some of the fructose.  The extent of hydrolization depends upon the temperature to which the mixture is heated.  Many commercial nectars are also treated with GMO bacteria to convert much of the glucose to fructose in a process similar to that used to make high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

It is impossible to determine the percentage of fructose or the use of GMO bacteria from the product labels.  For this reason, I recommend avoiding agave syrup.  See also Mercola on this product.

NOTE:  agave sap is fermented to make tequila. Used with moderation, this is a far more healthful food than agave syrup.


  1. Stevia:  Naturally-Sweet Recipes for Drinks, Desserts and More, by Rita DePuydt
  2. Splenda: womentowomen.com/nutritionandweightloss/splenda.aspx
  3. Better Nutrition magazine, December 2007
  4. curezone.com/foods/maple_syrup.htm
  5. wellness-interactive.com/foodlife/alternativesweeteners.htm
  6. answerbag.com/q_view/61800
  7. goaskalice.columbia.edu/0655.html
  8. dionex.com/en-us/webdocs/4666_an92.pdf
  9. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molasses
  10. whfoods.org/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=118
  11. chinanaturalproduct.com/Lo_Han_Kuo_Extract.htm
  12. itmonline.org/arts/luohanguo.htm
  13. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glucose
  14. ppnf.org/catalog/ppnf/Articles/Aspartame.htm
  15. bodyandfitness.com/Information/Fitness/sugar.htm great information.
  16. articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/04/04/Corn-is-Making-the-US-Unhealthy.aspx
  17. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1584107?dopt=Abstract
  18. Agave Nectar: Worse Than We Thought, by Sally Fallon Morell and Rami Nagel (westonaprice.org/modern-foods/1604-agave-nectar-worse-than-we-thought.html)
  19. Processed Free America: The skinny on evaporated cane sugar, by Dee McCaffrey, CDC, March 5, 2014 (processedfreeamerica.org/resources/health-news/405-the-truth-about-evaporated-cane-juice)
  20. Nature’s Blessings: Coconut Sugar (naturesblessings.com.ph/cocosugar.htm)
  21. Science Direct abstract: sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022030278837904
  22. Alternative Daily on: (22a) Natural Sugars; (22b) A doctor’s sales pitch for his book on honey

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