Brown Sugar: Are There Health Benefits?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on July 05, 2023
5 min read

Almost everyone enjoys the taste of sweet things, so it's no wonder why sugars are added to all types of foods and drinks, from sodas to baked goods. However, too much sugar in your diet can lead to diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. However, in moderate amounts, sweeteners can be tasty and healthy, especially if they encourage you or your loved ones to eat nutrient-dense foods you would otherwise avoid.

What is Brown Sugar?

It's a natural sweetener that you can use to make various foods taste better. Like every natural sugar, brown sugar is made by taking sugar juice out of sugar beet or sugar cane plants. Brown sugar is made by mixing white sugar with molasses, giving it a different flavor and distinct nutritional makeup. 

Here's what you need to know about the health benefits of brown sugar:

Brown sugar is relatively low in nutrients and high in calories, and it is meant to provide your body with carbohydrates to use as energy. 

One teaspoon of brown sugar contains:

  • 17 calories
  • 0 grams of fat, cholesterol, and protein
  • 1 milligram of sodium
  • 5 grams of carbohydrates

There are limited studies showing the benefits of brown sugar by itself. However, as an additive, brown sugar offers several health benefits by giving you energy and acting as a tasty flavor enhancer to encourage healthier eating.

It can help kids stay nourished. "Failure to thrive" is a phrase used to describe children at the lowest end of the weight chart for their age and sex. Although there are numerous reasons for failure to thrive, including underlying medical conditions, one common cause is malnourishment. A child might not be eating enough calories or getting enough vital nutrients.

One reason this may happen is that a child is picky about the foods they eat. Sometimes, children might have sensory processing disorders that make certain textures or flavors difficult to eat. Other times, children might simply refuse to eat, which can frustrate their parents.

Bridge foods can help children with limited palette or who commonly refuse to eat become more adventurous and enthusiastic eaters. Brown sugar sweetens foods such as oatmeal or vegetables that kids might avoid, allowing you to work more nutritious foods into their diets while preventing malnourishment and failure to thrive.

It can prevent low blood sugar. Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, occurs when your body's blood sugar levels drop below normal. Although this can happen to anyone, low blood sugar is especially common among people with diabetes.

When you have low blood sugar, you have various symptoms that impair your quality of life—such as anxiety or decreased energy. If you have low blood sugar, it's crucial to eat fast-acting glucose like brown sugar.

Although brown sugar can help you sweeten healthy foods you might not otherwise enjoy, keep in mind that a healthy serving of brown sugar is fairly small. While many recipes may call for 1/2 a cup or more of brown sugar, a serving of brown sugar is 1 teaspoon.

Too much sugar in your diet can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, so it's important that you limit your portions.

Whether you're trying to be healthier or you just don't have brown sugar in your pantry, there are several brown sugar substitutes you can use in recipes.

Maple syrup. Because it's a liquid, you may need to adjust the other wet ingredients in your mixture when baking. Maple syrup does still affect your blood sugar, so it may not be a safe sugar alternative if you have diabetes.

Fruit. Bananas, berries, and raisins add natural sweetness to recipes. When you add a fruit in place of brown sugar, you may need to adjust other wet ingredients so that your recipe isn't soggy.

Honey. It's still considered an added sugar, but honey is a natural alternative to refined sugars. There are no additives or preservatives in honey. Because it's sweeter than sugar, you don't have to add as much to a recipe. Moreover, it has a lower glycemic index, so it's a better choice for people with diabetes.‌

Date sugar. Dates can be dried and ground to make a sugar substitute. Because it comes from a whole fruit, it also adds fiber and nutrients to your recipes. Dates are especially good as a brown sugar substitute, as they hold some of the moisture from their fruit form.

When you first start cooking without brown sugar, it's helpful to understand how a substitute ingredient could affect the way your recipe looks, feels, and tastes:

  • Sugar darkens as it caramelizes during baking. Brown sugar alternatives may be lighter in color.
  • Brown sugar clumps and provides some bulk to baked goods. A substitute may cause cakes, muffins, and breads to appear smaller.
  • Texture may not be the same without brown sugar.
  • Some sweeteners have an aftertaste that you wouldn't get with brown sugar.
  • You may need to adjust baking times according to the brown sugar substitute you use.‌
  • Brown sugar holds moisture. Goods baked without it may dry out faster and not keep as long.
  • Some substitutes may have more or less sweetness than brown sugar. You may have to adjust for the desired sweetness in your recipe.

Benefit of brown sugar replacements include:

Eating fewer calories. Some sweeteners used to replace brown sugar in recipes save you calories. You don't have to give up flavor to make healthier choices in your recipe. Using low-calorie sweeteners may help you avoid weight gain.

Drawbacks include:

Changing recipe ratios. If a recipe is written with a brown sugar substitute in mind, you don't have to make adjustments. However, if you're trying to bake something that calls for brown sugar, you may have to adjust the ingredients to get the right consistency.

Overeating. It's still possible to overindulge in foods that don't include sugar. Check nutrition labels when you consider brown sugar substitutes. Not all of them make foods healthier, and you should still eat them in moderation.

Show Sources


Photo credit: Anphotos/Dreamstime

American Family Physician: "Failure to Thrive: a Practical Guide." 

ESHA Research, Inc., Salem, Oregon.

Mayo Clinic: "Added Sugars: Don't Get Sabotaged by Sweeteners," "Type I Diabetes."

Paediatrics & Child Health: "The 'picky eater': The toddler or preschooler who does not eat."

The Sugar Association: "Types of Sugar." 

Cleveland Clinic: "The 5 Best (And Worst) Sweeteners You Can Eat."

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