The Health Benefits of Brown Sugar

Over the years, brown sugar has solidified its reputation as a “healthy” alternative to white sugar. In fact, it’s often marketed as a natural sweetener and sugar substitute that can be enjoyed without all the side effects associated with regular sugar.

However, contrary to popular belief, there are very few differences between brown and white sugar in terms of nutrition, and both can have detrimental effects when it comes to your health.

Luckily, there are plenty of other options to help satisfy your sweet tooth while still scaling back on your sugar intake and/or sugar addiction. Keep reading for an in-depth look at the similarities and differences between brown and white sugar, along with some simple brown sugar substitute options that you can make in your favorite recipes.


Brown sugar - Dr. Axe

What Is Brown Sugar?

Like white sugar, brown sugar is a sweetener produced from either the sugarcane or sugar beet plant. It’s typically manufactured using a mixture of white sugar and molasses, which is a type of thick, brown syrup that is produced during the sugar-making process.

The addition of molasses gives the sugar a dark color and rich, caramel-like flavor. It also bumps up the nutritional value of brown sugar and supplies a small amount of several key nutrients.

Brown sugar is often used to sweeten sauces, dips and marinades, as well as baked goods like cakes and cookies. It is also sometimes added to skincare products, facial masks and body scrubs — and acts as a natural exfoliant.

Brown Sugar vs. White Sugar

What is the difference between  brown sugar vs. white sugar?

Both brown and white sugar are produced from either the sugarcane or sugar beet plant. However, brown sugar contains molasses, which is responsible for its unique flavor and appearance.

Compared to white sugar, brown sugar is slightly higher in a few key micronutrients, which is thanks to the addition of molasses. In particular, each serving of brown sugar provides a small amount of iron, potassium, calcium and copper.

There are also slightly fewer calories in brown sugar, although the difference is minimal. While 100 grams of white sugar provides 387 calories, the same amount of brown sugar contains 380 calories.

Keep in mind, however, that the nutritional differences between brown and white sugar are very small. Although brown sugar does contain a small amount of several vitamins and minerals, it is not considered a good source of these nutrients.

Additionally, because of its molasses content, brown sugar tends to harden faster than other types of sugar. Fortunately, if you ever find yourself in the process of whipping up a delicious brown sugar recipe only to find that the sugar in your cabinet has become hard and dense, there’s a simple solution.

In fact, one of the easiest methods for how to soften brown sugar is to place a moist paper towel on top of the sugar and microwave for 20–30 seconds in a microwave-safe bowl. Then, simply use a fork to break up the chunks and help soften it up.


There are a number of different types of brown sugar on the market. Not only does the brown sugar price tag vary quite a bit between these varieties, but each also offers a unique taste and texture as well.

Here are a few of the most common types:

  • Light brown sugar: This type of sugar is made by adding a small amount of molasses to white sugar, which gives it a pale brown color and mild flavor.
  • Dark brown sugar: Like light brown sugar, this form of sugar is made by adding molasses to white sugar. However, it contains a higher amount of molasses than lighter varieties, which is responsible for its dark color and complex flavor.
  • Demerara sugar: This type of cane sugar is less refined than other kinds of sugar, giving it a light brown color, subtle flavor and large, crystal-like grains.
  • Turbinado sugar: Also known as “raw sugar,” turbinado sugar is partially refined and contains a small amount of molasses, which provides a caramel-like flavor and brown hue.
  • Muscovado sugar: This form of sugar is unrefined, meaning it still contains the molasses. This gives it a sandy, somewhat sticky texture, along with a darker color and richer flavor than other types.


The brown sugar nutrition profile is high in calories and carbohydrates. It also contains a very small amount of micronutrients, such as calcium, copper and iron.

One teaspoon of packed brown sugar contains the following nutrients:

  • 17.5 calories
  • 4.5 grams carbohydrates
  • 3.8 milligrams calcium (0.3 percent DV)
  • 0.002 milligrams copper (0.2 percent DV)
  • 0.033 milligrams iron (0.2 percent DV)
  • 0.4 milligrams magnesium (0.1 percent DV)
  • 0.003 milligrams manganese (0.1 percent DV)
  • 0.006 milligrams pantothenic acid (0.1 percent DV)
  • 6.1 milligrams potassium (0.1 percent DV)
  • 0.05 micrograms selenium (0.1 percent DV)
  • 0.002 milligrams vitamin B6 (0.1 percent DV)

Potential Benefits/Uses

One of the most common brown sugar uses is for cooking and baking. In particular, it is often used to add a hint of sweetness to baked goods, marinades, sauces, dips and drinks.

Brown sugar syrup is also sometimes used as a substitute for molasses or maple syrup and can be drizzled over pancakes and waffles.

Although it depends on the recipe, brown and white sugar can often be used interchangeably, which can help add a bit of depth and color to your favorite dishes. It is also used to give baked goods like zucchini bread, cookies and cakes a more thick and dense texture and consistency.

Sugar is also used in baking to prevent moisture loss and extend the shelf life of products. Plus, it adds a bit of tenderness and improves the structure, color and flavor of baked goods.

Its ability to act as a natural exfoliant is one of the biggest brown sugar benefits when it comes to skin care. In fact, because of its large grains, it can help scrub off dead skin to keep skin glowing and smooth.

For a simple method for how to make a brown sugar face and body scrub, simply combine a bit of sugar with some water, coconut oil and your choice of essential oils.

Risks and Side Effects

Is sugar bad for you? Yes, excess sugar in any form can be harmful to your health.

Not only is sugar high in calories and carbohydrates yet lacking in important micronutrients, but sugar consumption has also been tied to a slew of negative side effects.

Specifically, research shows that added sugar consumption can contribute to chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and fatty liver disease. It may also lead to weight gain and fat gain, which can increase the risk for many other conditions as well.

How many grams of sugar per day should you consume? According to the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, you should limit added sugar consumption to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories.

On a typical 2,000-calorie diet, this translates to about 50 grams of added sugar per day, which also includes the hidden sugar foods like soda, cookies, candies and juice.

Additionally, about 95 percent of sugar beet crops cultivated in the United States are genetically modified. Many people decide to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs) due to concerns about long-term health risks, including antibiotic resistance, toxicity and increased allergenicity.

Opting for brown sugar brands that are organic or produced from sugarcane plants instead is an easy way to minimize your exposure to genetically modified plants.

Healthier Brown Sugar Substitute Options

If you’re looking to cut back on your added sugar intake, there are plenty of brown sugar substitutes available. Here are a few of the best options:

1. Stevia

This simple substitute for brown sugar is derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, a species that is native to several parts of South America. Like other non-nutritive sweeteners, such as sucralose, not only is stevia free of calories, but it has also been associated with a number of powerful health benefits.

In particular, it’s been shown to lower blood sugar and insulin levels compared to regular sugar, making it a great brown sugar substitute for diabetics.

2. Maple Syrup

Another great brown sugar substitute is maple syrup, which is produced from the sap of the sugar maple tree. It is slightly more nutrient-dense than regular sugar and contains a small amount of micronutrients and antioxidants in each serving.

It can also be used as a simple substitute for brown sugar in cooking and baking. Just swap out one cup of brown or white sugar for 3/4 cup of maple syrup in your favorite recipes and enjoy.

3. Monk Fruit

This type of sweetener is derived from the monk fruit plant, which is native to Thailand and China. It’s often used as a brown sugar substitute on keto because most varieties are virtually free of calories and carbs.

Monk fruit extract has also been shown to increase the secretion of insulin, which can help regulate blood sugar levels.

4. Raw Honey

One of the best brown sugar substitutes is honey, which is a sweet substance that is produced by bees. Honey is a great source of antioxidants and flavonoids, which help fight free radical damage to protect against disease.

Raw honey is also less processed and is generally free of additives and fillers, which is why it’s one of the best brown sugar substitute options without molasses.

5. Blackstrap Molasses

A simple yet delicious brown sugar substitute is molasses, which is made by boiling raw sugar to produce a highly concentrated, sweet syrup. Blackstrap molasses, in particular, is thick, dark and slightly bitter, which can add an interesting twist to your dishes and desserts.


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