The Various Names of Sugar


Cane sugar, raw sugar, rapadura, demerara, evaporated cane juice—are these just fanciful names to disguise the presence of ordinary sugar? Or are they actually different products? Unfortunately, many sugar products that are essentially the same go by a variety of names. However, some sugars are far more natural and nutrient-rich than others, so it really is worth the time to familiarize yourself with the different names and varieties of sugar.

Names That Mean Something

Some of the following terms (such as raw sugar and cane sugar) are undoubtedly used to confuse and mislead consumers. However, they are used fairly consistently, so once you know what a term means, you can identify the nature of the product with reasonable certainty.

Ordinary white table sugar (or sucrose) comes from either sugar cane or sugar beet plants. The sugar cane or beets are crushed, water is added, and the mixture is boiled to concentrate the liquid and crystallize the sugar content. The concentrated mixture, which is now known as cane syrup, is then centrifuged to separated the crystals from the liquid. The crystals are further refined and processed several times to get a purified white sugar. “Cane sugar” and “beet sugar” are nothing more than ordinary white sugar with the source (sugar cane or sugar beets) indicated. One reason to prefer cane sugar is that most sugar beets produced today have been genetically modified.

Invert sugar (also called inverted sugar syrup) is a product made from white sugar. It is produced by heating sugar in water along with an acid or an enzyme as a catalyst. The resulting chemical process splits the white sugar (sucrose) into two simpler sugars: fructose and glucose. The resulting product is a liquid that is sweeter than sugar. Bakers frequently use invert sugar because it increases the shelf life of the baked good.

Ordinary brown sugar is another highly processed product made from white sugar. To make brown sugar, a small amount of molasses is sprayed onto white sugar.

Molasses is a by-product of the sugar industry. It refers to the thick, bitter liquid that remains when the sugar crystals have been removed. The molasses can be reheated several times to extract more of the sugar content. With each heating, the molasses becomes darker, more bitter, and more concentrated in vitamins and minerals.

Demerara sugar, turbinado sugar, and nearly all products called “raw” sugar can be considered natural brown sugars—that is, sugars that retain some (but not all) of their natural molasses content. They are less processed than regular brown sugar, but not unprocessed. They have been centrifuged to remove some of the molasses, resulting in a carmel-like sugar that is not bitter. The key difference between these sugars and regular brown sugar is that their molasses content has not been removed and then added back in.

Sucanat, jaggery, and Rapadura are truly unprocessed sugars. They are produced using mechanical extraction processes and are not centrifuged. Since they retain all their natural molasses content, they are more bitter than products such as raw sugar, but they are also higher in vitamin and mineral content.

Names That Don’t Mean Much

Many names for sugar give the consumer no clear indication of what the product really is. It is reasonable with these products to assume the worst.

Muscovado is a term used for brown-colored sugars, but there is a significant difference in how processed these sugars are. Some are centrifuged and comparable to demerara and turbinado sugar. Other versions are not centrifuged and are similar to Sucanat and Rapadura.

Cane syrup is a term defined by the FDA as “the liquid food derived by concentration and heat treatment of the juice of sugarcane.” Dried cane syrup is a solid product made by removing the water content from cane syrup. Traditional cane syrup is a product made by slowly concentrating the juice of sugar cane in open kettles. It is a natural sweetener, and some versions (such as Steen’s) are still available in the U.S. However, the FDA definition allows cane syrup to be industrially processed with salt, artificial preservatives, and chemical defoaming agents, so the industrial version is significantly different from traditionally-made artisan ones.

Evaporated cane juice (or evaporated cane sugar) is a controversial designation. In 2009, the FDA put out a guidance statement that evaporated cane juice was not a recognized term for a product. The FDA indicated that the term “juice” was misleading and that the product was really dried cane syrup. In response, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) argued that there were significant differences between the two products. According to the GMA, the product known to industry as evaporated cane juice is made by mechanically pressing the sugar cane, not by heating it, and that the product is “unrefined” and made without additives.

Several recent lawsuits allege that evaporated cane juice is nearly identical to ordinary sugar, citing as evidence comments by industry experts that indicate the product is sugar with a trace of molasses. The suits claimed that the label therefore needed to state the common and usual name of the product as “sugar.” In at least two of the cases, the manufacturers prevailed, and one other case is currently on hold, pending clarification by the FDA. Last year, however, the FDA re-opened the issue for public comment, so the issue has not been resolved. One thing is clear: there is no recognized standard for evaporated cane juice.

There is a more legitimate version of this product called sugar cane juice concentrate. The patented method involves pressing the sugar cane stalks to extract the juice. The moisture from the cane juice is then evaporated under a vacuum to produce solid particles. The patent, however, reveals that the procedure also involves processing with calcium hydroxide and at least one “natural flocculate product.”

Sugar by Any Other Name . . .

Sugar, like nearly all other food, varies widely in quality based on how much it is processed. Rapadura, Sucanat, traditional Indian jaggery, and blackstrap molasses (a very dark, rich molasses made from the third boiling) are the best choices for sugar products. These products do not have the pure sweet quality of white sugar, but the slight bitterness is what makes them natural and more nutritious. If you find natural sugar too bitter for your taste, coconut sugar and unfiltered, unheated honey are good alternatives.

Jennifer Handy
Jennifer Handy is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay area. She holds a PhD from the University of Tulsa. She is interested in traditional foods, natural health, and the effects of the food processing industry. Many of her researched articles have been published in the journal of the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation (PPNF).