Unrefined sugars can be SO confusing – sucanat, rapadura, panela, and muscovado. Not only are they unfamiliar in the culture, tough to find at your local grocery store, and a maze of nutritional myths. When you have 3-4 names for basically the same product it can be difficult to find an answer to the question, “Are unrefined sugars healthier than white sugar?”
Want the Real Scoop on Sucanat, Rapadura, Panela and Muscovado Sugar?
Three of them mean basically the same thing. Here’s why there are 4 names:
A trademarked name for whole cane sugar from dried (dehydrated) sugar cane juice. It stands for “sucre de canne naturel” which you can also remember in English as “SUgar CAne NATural.” You’ll find it in a dark brown granulated form. It retains 100% of the sugar cane’s molasses (sucanat is about 13% molasses). (Purchase at Amazon.)
Similar to sucanat, panela is dried cane juice, traditionally found in a large block in Central and South American countries and Mexico. The terms dehydrated and evaporated are both used here! (Purchase at Amazon.)
The Portuguese name for Panela, also sold in large blocks in Brazil but also in granular form from a German company called Rapunzel, who tried to trademark the name amidst much controversy. Rapunzel removed the term from their packaging in February 2009 and simply use “organic whole cane sugar” now. Ironic: In Venezuela, rapadura is cheaper than white sugar, while in America it costs 5-10 times as much. (Purchase Rapunzel brand at Amazon.)
Typically substituted for brown sugar, muscovado is a product of the Philippines. It sounds like it’s more moist than other unrefined cane sugars and quite sticky, but it looks just like dark brown sugar.1 Muscovado is evaporated cane juice, which makes it closer in nutrition to white sugar than sucanat or rapadura. (Purchase at Amazon.)
Note: from what I can tell, ‘dehydrated’ and ‘evaporated’ cane juice are often used synonymously, although this article at Wholesome Sweeteners describes two very different processes for dehydrating and evaporating sugar cane. In short, sucanat is dehydrated and retains the set of minerals and balance of sucrose, fructose and glucose in the whole sugar cane, while other organic sugars (including their own) is evaporated with some separation of the molasses, retaining only a smidge of the natural minerals.
Sucanat and Rapadura: Natural Granulated Sweeteners
Sucanat and Rapadura both are very brown in color and certainly a larger grain than refined white sugar. They do impart both color and flavor to just about anything you choose to use them in.
Because both retain the molasses of the original sugar cane (often over 10%), it’s that deep molasses flavor that changes the way sucanat and rapadura affect the taste of the recipe. On the other hand, it’s really nice that they can be substituted 1:1 for white sugar.
I’ve found that in something like water kefir, the end product is radically different than with white sugar: more depth of flavor and usually more carbonated. It often gets “too zippy” for my kids.
The sucanat does a nice job in recipes that already have depth of flavor, like healthy pumpkin muffins or sourdough chocolate cake. You might notice the molasses content more in something like banana bread, homemade ice cream or sugar cookies.
If you’re used to whole wheat baked goods, I’m thinking you’d have an easier time adjusting to dehydrated sugar cane, as it strikes me as the “whole wheat” of the sweetener family and adds a similar heartiness and depth to recipes.
How Sucanat and Rapadura are Processed
I get a different answer every time. Let’s explore:
How is Sucanat Made?
The process for making Sucanat™ starts out like that used for other forms of cane sugar, with the harvesting of the sugar canes. The canes are cut, leaving the roots behind so that they will sprout new canes in the coming year, and then they are crushed in a mangler which extracts their naturally sweet juice. If the sugar was going to be refined, the juice would be run through an evaporation process which included measures for purification, and in this process, much of the natural molasses would be extracted.
In the case of Sucanat™, however, the sugar cane juice is simply heated and then allowed to cool, forming granular crystals of what is basically dried sugar cane juice. The Sucanat™ retains the molasses, creating a very distinctive and quite strong flavor, along with other impurities which may be present in the cane.2
To produce Wholesome Sweeteners Fair Trade Organic Sucanat (SUgar CAne NATural), cane syrup is poured into a vat and hand-paddled to add air. The paddling causes the hot, thick syrup to release heat and start to dry. As it dries, porous granules form which retain 100% of the cane’s molasses, a source of iron, calcium, potassium, B vitamins and chromium.3
How is Rapadura Made?
Rapadura is the pure juice extracted from the sugar cane (using a press), which is then evaporated over low heats, whilst being stirred with paddles, then seive ground to produce a grainy sugar. It has not been cooked at high heats, and spun to change it into crystals, and the molasses has not been separated from the sugar.
More Than Alive claims that “Sucanat is different to Rapadura in that the sugar stream and the molasses stream are separated from each other during processing, then reblended to create a consistent product…”
It seems that everywhere on the Internet, people are saying that sucanat is no longer processed correctly, simply has a bit of molasses added back in, and doesn’t really have the nutrients you want, whereas rapadura (usually referenced as the Rapunzel brand, which no longer uses that label on their packaging) is the properly prepared unrefined whole cane sugar.
I’m thinking this is mostly based in myth and a little in fact – the bottom line being that you need to check with the supplier on process rather than just relying on a label. I’m confident in Rapunzel brand and Wholesome Sweeteners, both of which disclose their process and are organically grown and fair trade certified.
On the Packages:
Rapunzel is labeled “organic whole cane sugar, unrefined and unbleached.” Ingredients: Organic, unrefined whole cane sugar. They have a graphic of their process on the back of the bag to show that the sugar cane is simply squeezed, filtered, dried, and ground (not separated at all).
Wholesome Sweeteners describes the product as “Dehydrated cane juice, Organic Sucanat. Ingredients: Organic Dehydrated Cane Juice The back of the package describes the processing, including crushing sugar cane, heating to a syrup, then stirring by hand to create the granule.
And here is the rather lengthy process to refine white sugar – and why is it LESS expensive???
Health Benefits of Sucanat and Rapadura
Here’s where the situation gets sticky – stickier! – in my humble opinion. Every time I spend 5-10 times as much on something like rapadura or sucanat (which when properly processed I see as equals), I wonder: is this upgrade really worth the money? Are there health benefits to unrefined sugar cane that are 5-10 times as beneficial as white sugar? If you believe that white sugar is basically a poison, is 5-10x as good as poison still mostly poison?
I can’t find any source that reliably says that there are any health benefits to dehydrated cane juice.
Some claim that it metabolizes slightly slower than white sugar and is, therefore, lower on the glycemic index – BUT the sucrose content is still so high that it’s not exactly a recommended food for diabetics and the like. The difference is evident but minimal.
Sucanat and rapadura do contain calcium, potassium, magnesium, Vitamin A and B vitamins, and although I continue to see websites state that they’re “an excellent source of” the above, they really only have trace amounts. There’s iron in there, too, which never hurts, but again, you’d have to eat a lot of unrefined sugar to get a decent amount of iron.
There’s a chart here that shows considerable amounts of calcium and potassium particularly in rapadura and “some” more in sucanat, but the chart isn’t well-sourced and somehow, I still don’t think it will make a difference. The chart demonstrates mineral levels in 100g of the product, and a teaspoon is only 4g. We’re still talking trace amounts.
My final opinion? Both sucanat and rapadura are better than sugar…but not by much.
If you’re working on a budget, simply cut down on the sugars your family eats, period, and you’ll spend less in the long run for better nutrition. To spend so much more on these products seems like a luxury for those who have already made many other nutritional changes and have the expendable income to make a small positive impact for a big price.
A great example of a sweet treat with barely any sugars of any kind…Almond Power Bars!
Nutrition Facts of Rapadura and Sucanat
It was actually quite difficult to find nutrition facts statistically on these guys, as my usual sources didn’t list them. Here are some pieces from other sites put together:
Rapunzel whole cane sugar (rapadura):
in 1 tsp.
- 15 cal.
- 4g carbs
- 4g sugars
- 11% iron
But for the iron, that matches white sugar exactly.
in 1 tsp.
- 15 cal.
- 4g carbs
- 4g sugars
- 24 mg potassium
- 33 IU Vitamin A
- 3.5 mg calcium
- ~3 mg magnesium
I used the chart here which lists the nutrition in a whole cup of sucanat vs. white sugar and tries to make sucanat seem as healthy as bananas, spinach, whole milk and sweet potatoes. Of course, if you eat a cup of sugar every day, even if it’s sucanat, you’re in trouble.
A teaspoon seemed like a better measurement since the coconut muffins found in Healthy Snacks to Go eBook only call for 1/4 c. of sweetener for 6 muffins, which makes each muffin contain 2 teaspoons sweetener.
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That chart more or less matches this one except in Vitamin A – you have to divide the figures there by 25 to get a 4g teaspoon. However, the second chart lists rapadura as having double the potassium, up to 10x the magnesium, 3x the phosphorus and up to 50x Vitamin A. I’m not sure that makes sense since the processing should be so similar. If Vitamin A was heat sensitive I’d buy that one, but A doesn’t show up on the common list of vitamins that degrade under heat.
Bottom line? Nutrition facts are not clear and certainly aren’t enough to vault sugar, even unrefined whole cane sugar, into the realm of a “health food.”
“Evaporated cane juice” only hits the scales on riboflavin, ringing in at about 10% DV in an ounce of sugar.
White sugar = 99% sucrose.4
Sucanat has less sucrose than white sugar, to the tune of 11%…That means sucanat still rings in at a whopping 88% sucrose.
Possible Disadvantages of Sucanat and Rapadura
A big question I set out to answer, both before and after it was posed by a reader, is Do the reasons white sugar is bad for you at my previous post also apply to unrefined sugars, or not?
- Dehydrated cane juice has the same number of calories as white sugar, so anything related to weight gain carries the same risks.
- The glucose ratings are slightly less…but only slightly. The minerals that come with whole cane sugar still aren’t fats, proteins or fiber, so the risk of heart disease and cancer ought to be similar if not even.
- I don’t know if it’s as addictive as white sugar…but the sweet taste talking to our pleasure receptors is still there, so…
- Bad bacteria still eat these unrefined sugars, so the immune depression and candida issues should remain just as volatile.
The bottom line is:
While sucanat is healthier than white sugar, it is still not health food. Sucanat contains only trace minerals and is not a significant source of any nutrient. Sugar contains no nutrients of note and adds only empty calories to the diet.
How to Use Sucanat and Rapadura
Simply substitute this granular sweetener 1:1 for any recipe that calls for white sugar.
Try sucanant or rapadura in these apple flax muffins (pictured above).
If you’re convinced you’d rather use sucanat than white sugar, you might want to know how to make your own Homemade Powdered Sugar with Sucanat. Pretty easy!
Want recipes to use natural granulated sweeteners in?
- McMahon, M., & Harris, B. (2020, April 28). What is Muscovado Sugar? Retrieved from https://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-muscovado-sugar.htm
- McMahon, M., & Harris, B. (2020, May 1). What is Sucanat? Retrieved from https://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-sucanat.htm
- Which Organic Sweetener & Why?: Wholesome! (2017, April 6). Retrieved from https://wholesomesweet.com/which-sweetener-and-why/
- Sugarcane. (2020, May 9). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugarcane