Brown Sugar: Are There Health Benefits?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on March 18, 2024
6 min read

Brown sugar is a natural sweetener that comes from processing sugar beets or sugar cane plants. Most commercially produced brown sugar is made by mixing white sugar with molasses, giving it a distinct flavor.

White sugar vs. brown sugar

White and brown sugar come from the same source -- sugar beets or sugar cane. They're soaked and squeezed to make sugar juice. That juice gets purified and separated into sugar crystals and molasses.

To make brown sugar, some of that molasses is added back in. That makes it more moist and likely to clump than white sugar.

Nutritionally, there's no significant difference between the two.

Dark brown sugar vs. light brown sugar

Dark brown sugar contains more molasses than light brown sugar. It has a deeper color and stronger flavor. The two can be used interchangeably, depending on your taste.

Beyond light and dark, there are many other types of brown sugar:

Raw sugar. This is cane sugar that's less processed than regular table sugar. It keeps some of the naturally occurring molasses, giving it a golden color. It has large crystals and doesn't melt very well. Varieties include demerara and turbinado.

Unrefined sugar. This is cane sugar that hasn't had any of the molasses removed. It's dark brown, with a strong flavor and high moisture content. The texture is sticky and sandy. It's called different things in different parts of the world, including muscovado sugar, Barbados sugar, rapadura, panela, piloncillo, chancaca, jaggery, gur, and kokuto sugar.

Free-flowing or granulated brown sugar. This is a type of brown sugar that has gone through a special process to remove nearly all the moisture so it doesn't clump.

Brown sugar is a source of carbohydrates that your body can use as energy.

One teaspoon of brown sugar contains:

  • 17.5 calories
  • 0 grams of fat, cholesterol, and protein
  • 4.5 grams of carbohydrates

Brown sugar also has small amounts of sodium, calcium, and potassium.

Like white sugar, brown sugar is quickly broken down into glucose, which gives your cells energy. It also tastes good. Both of those qualities can provide some health benefits.

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. There are many 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 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.

It can prevent low blood sugar

Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, happens 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.

It can make you cranky or sleepy. It can also cause shakiness, sweating, confusion, and even a seizure. If you have low blood sugar, you must raise it fast by eating or drinking something that gives you glucose, such as brown sugar.

Although brown sugar can sweeten healthy foods you might not otherwise enjoy, keep in mind that a serving of brown sugar is fairly small -- just a teaspoon.

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

If your recipe calls for brown sugar and you're out of it, you can make your own by adding a tablespoon of molasses to a cup of white sugar. There are several other substitutes for brown sugar you can try.

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 replace brown sugar with a fruit, 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 keep 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 stay fresh as long.
  • Some substitutes may have more or less sweetness than brown sugar. You may have to adjust their quantity for the desired sweetness in your recipe.

Can you use brown sugar instead of white sugar?

You can substitute brown sugar one-to-one for white sugar in recipes. But the end result will taste a little different. You may also need to use less liquid because of the extra moisture in brown sugar.

Benefits 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.

Brown sugar is nutritionally very similar to white sugar, made up almost entirely of carbohydrates. It can provide a quick source of energy or a blood sugar boost and enhance the flavor of healthier foods, encouraging picky eaters to try them.

Is brown sugar healthier than sugar?

No. Brown and white sugar have essentially the same nutritional profile. Brown sugar has trace amounts of minerals, but you'd have to eat much more sugar than is recommended to get enough minerals to benefit you.

What's brown sugar made of?

Like white sugar, brown sugar comes from processing sugar beets and sugar cane. Commercially produced brown sugar is mostly white sugar with molasses added.