What Is Unrefined Sugar and Is It Better?

Last Updated: March 28, 2024

Ever wonder what the difference is between refined and unrefined sugars?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking some sugars are “bad” and others are “good.” You’ve probably seen recipes labeled “refined sugar-free” and thought they were the healthier option.

You’re in the right spot if you’re trying to get the facts straight about refined and unrefined sugars. We’re diving into this not-so-sweet debate to clear up any confusion.

Keep reading for a straightforward breakdown of the differences between these sugars and why those differences might not matter as much as you think. 

Sugar 101

There are so many different types of sugar, such as table sugar, brown rice syrup, cane sugar, raw sugar, brown sugars, molasses, and many more. 

But at their most basic level, all sugars are molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The most basic sugar molecule is glucose, which is a simple sugar that’s an important source of energy for the body. 

Fructose is another simple sugar that’s found in fruit and is also commonly used as a sweetener.

When we eat sugar, our body breaks it down into glucose and fructose, which is then absorbed into the bloodstream. The body uses glucose as a primary source of energy, while fructose is primarily used by the liver.

Different sweeteners are made up of different ratios of glucose and fructose. For example, table sugar, also known as sucrose, is made up of equal parts glucose and fructose. 

Honey is also primarily made up of glucose and fructose, but the ratio can vary depending on the type of honey.

So while they have different flavor profiles and micronutrient qualities, once digested, they are all broken down into the same compounds. 

What is Unrefined Sugar?

Unrefined sugar is often touted as being less processed, which is believed to preserve more of the minerals. 

Examples of unrefined sugars include honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and date sugar. 

But here’s the thing: all of these sugars do undergo some level of processing. Think what it would take to make sugar out of a coconut. That requires a series of steps considered processing. 

Despite the processing involved, unrefined sugars do generally retain more of the original plant’s trace minerals.

But while these minerals are beneficial, they’re present in such small amounts, so they do not significantly contribute to your daily nutritional requirements. 

To put this into perspective, we can compare the mineral content of unrefined sugars with that of common foods known for their rich mineral profiles.

For example, magnesium is found in far greater quantities in foods like spinach, almonds, and black beans. Just one ounce of almonds provides 76 mg of magnesium, which is significantly higher than the amount you would get from consuming a similar calorie amount of unrefined sugar.

Similarly, potassium is abundant in foods like bananas, potatoes, and avocados. A medium-sized banana contains about 422 mg of potassium, offering a more substantial contribution to meeting the recommended daily intake than unrefined sugars.

This comparison highlights that the mineral amounts in unrefined sugars are not nearly as effective as consuming whole foods. 

Although unrefined sugars can add variety and flavor to our diets, the key to meeting our nutritional requirements lies in a diverse diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes. 

These foods not only provide essential minerals in meaningful amounts but also offer a wide range of vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants, contributing to our overall health.

Nutrient Comparison 

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the micronutrient content of honey compared to an adult’s recommended daily intake (1, 2).

As you can see, the amount of micronutrients in a 100g serving of honey (about 5 tablespoons) comes no where near our recommended daily intake.

Comparison chart of minerals in honey compared to human requirements

Is Unrefined Sugar Better?

Unrefined sugar impacts your body like refined sugar. 

All added sugars, regardless of their source, can contribute to excess calorie intake, leading to weight gain and an increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease (3)

This is why it’s important to limit added sugars (both refined and unrefined) in the diet and focus on natural sources of sugar that also provide other important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Added Sugars vs Natural Sugars

Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added to foods and beverages when they are processed or prepared. These can include white sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, and agave. 

Added sugars are found in a wide variety of foods and drinks, including soda, baked goods, candy, and many packaged foods.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar intake to less than 6 teaspoons per day for women and less than 9 teaspoons per day for men (4)

Natural sugars, on the other hand, are found naturally in whole foods, such as fruit, vegetables, and dairy products. These foods also contain other important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals.

This is why it’s important to limit added sugars and focus on natural sugars as part of a healthy diet.

You may be wondering if sugars like honey and maple syrup have more nutrients. They do, but the minerals they contain contribute very little to our total nutrient needs. 

The amount of sugar we would need to consume to obtain any benefit from their minerals would be a LOT of sugar. And moderation is key when considering how much added sugars you should be eating.

Bottom Line

Whether you’re drizzling honey on your oatmeal or stirring white sugar into your coffee, keeping your overall sugar intake in check is what truly matters for your health. 

It’s important to use the sweeteners that you enjoy, but don’t be fooled by the belief that unrefined sugars are a healthier choice. Moderation is key when it comes to added sugars, no matter the source.

A high intake of added sugar from any source can increase risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.

You don’t have to avoid recipes that are labeled “refined sugar free,” but it’s important to remember that this label does not give you a free pass to eat as much as you want without considering the potential effects on your health. 

Aim to enjoy these sweeteners in moderation and focus on a balanced diet rich in whole foods. This way, you can satisfy your sweet tooth while still caring for your long term well-being.

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