What’s the difference between unrefined sugar and refined sugar? And is unrefined sugar really better for you?

I’ve Got to Know: Is Unrefined Sugar Healthier Than Refined Sugar?

Google “healthy cookie recipe” and the recipe you’ll find at the top of the first page is made with honey instead of plain sugar. With so many different types of sugars and sweeteners available these days, there’s a lot of confusion about which sugar is healthiest.
And it doesn’t help when your favorite wellness *influencer* tells you all her treats are “refined sugar free”. To be honest, I’ve hopped on the bandwagon myself and share mostly refined sugar free desserts to my Instagram (shamelessly using the hashtag #refinedsugarfree). But what does this buzz phrase even mean? And are unrefined sugars really any better for you than refined ones?
Spoiler alert: they’re not. While I’m a huge fan of honey and maple syrup (more so for their taste and versatility in no-bake desserts like my Homemade Perfect Bars), sugar is sugar – it doesn’t matter if it’s in white sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup, or honey form. Now let me explain why.
 refined white sugar vs unrefined sugar

Difference between refined and unrefined sugar

In my latest nutrition post, I discussed the differences between added and natural sugars (I highly recommend you give this a skim). As a quick recap, natural sugars are those found naturally in foods, specifically produce (highest amounts in fruits) and milk products. Added sugars are sugars added to foods and beverages during the manufacturing or preparation process.
Refined and unrefined sugars both fall into the “added sugars” category.

Unrefined sugars

Think honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and agave nectar here. They’re typically a little less processed than their so-called “refined” friends, and therefore retain more of the natural nutrients that are often removed in the more extensive refining processes (more on this later).

Refined sugars

Refined sugar is how we traditionally think of plain, white table sugar. It’s the stuff you can buy for $1.50 a bag and that’s often used in commercial baked goods, candies, sodas, etc. Powdered sugar, brown sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup also fall into this category.
Table sugar is harvested from sugar beets and sugar cane plants (which is why it’s often called “cane sugar”) and refined to remove all impurities and surrounding plant matter, leaving only pure sucrose.

Sugar Chemistry 101

It helps to have some basic knowledge of what these different sugars and sweeteners are made up of so that you can understand just how similar they really are. Stay with me here – I promise to make this section quick and painless!
  • Table sugar: Plain, white table sugar is 100% sucrose – the scientific name for table sugar. Sucrose is a disaccharide (‘di’ meaning two) consisting of one glucose and one fructose molecule linked together. Glucose and fructose are single sugar molecules or monosaccharides (‘mono’ meaning one).
  • Maple syrup: From a sugar standpoint, much of maple syrup is identical to table sugar. Sucrose makes up over 90% of the sugar molecules in maple syrup. The rest are free-floating, individual glucose and fructose molecules (remember, these are the two sugars that, when linked together, form sucrose).
  • Coconut sugar: Like table sugar and maple syrup, coconut sugar is mainly sucrose (around 70-80%), with a little free-floating glucose and fructose, too.
  • Honey: The main difference between honey and the other sweeteners is that it’s composed primarily of monosaccharides. Instead of being bound together (as sucrose), almost all of the sugar molecules in honey are individual, free-floating fructose and glucose. There’s also a small amount of sucrose and other sugars in honey.
What does all of this mean? Well, only single sugar molecules can be absorbed into the bloodstream (sucrose, I’m talking to you here). So, any sucrose is broken down into glucose and fructose during digestion.
This means that all of these sugar sources ultimately end up as some combination of the same two simple sugars – glucose and fructose – before entering the bloodstream. And for most of these sugar sources, you’re looking at close to a 50:50 ratio of the two.
So, while unrefined sweeteners are thought of as superior to refined ones, when we get into the nitty-gritty chemical side of it, they’re not much different. Chemically speaking, sugar is sugar.

What does refined sugar free mean?

When the phrase “refined sugar free” is used to describe a dessert recipe, it makes sense to assume that the recipe is healthy (or at least healthier). Unrefined or less processed foods are generally associated with better nutritional value. And while this may be the case for many foods (like whole-grain bread is more nutritious than it’s refined counterpart white bread), this isn’t the case for sugars and sweeteners.
Refined sugar free doesn’t necessarily (or usually) mean sugar-free, either. A refined sugar free cookie recipe could still yield 20 grams of sugar per cookie, just coming from coconut sugar instead of white sugar. And as you’ve just found out, the two aren’t much different from a chemical standpoint. You’ll soon find out why they’re not much different from a health standpoint, either.
honey dropper with pool of honey

Is unrefined sugar healthier than plain sugar?

To best answer this question, let’s address a few points from #teamunrefined. 

Unrefined sugars are natural

A common argument you’ll see in favor of unrefined sugars is that “well, they’re natural”. “Natural” in the sense that they came from something in nature, like a maple tree or a coconut, and are unprocessed.
Well, even good old table sugar came from a plant – a sugar beet or sugar cane plant. Google pictures of both and I’m sure they’ll look pretty dang natural to you! Plus, the word “natural” is not synonymous with the word “healthy” (this applies to many foods beyond just sugars and sweeteners).
The terms “natural” and “unrefined” are often interpreted to mean unprocessed, which is why calling them unrefined is a tad misleading. Don’t get me wrong, these unrefined sugars and sweeteners are often a little less processed than good old table sugar, but they’re certainly not unprocessed. Take coconut sugar for example. It starts as coconut sap, which is then heated, sieved, dried, weighed, and packaged in granule form. All processes.
No matter how straight-from-nature a sugar is, it’s still sugar and should be treated as such.

Unrefined sugars have a lower glycemic index

Is it true that unrefined sugars, like coconut sugar and honey, have a lower glycemic index than refined sugars like table sugar? Technically, yes, it’s true. 
Simply put, the glycemic index is a measure of how quickly a food causes blood sugar levels to rise. The higher a food ranks on the glycemic index scale, the higher and more rapidly it’ll raise blood sugar.
Honey has a glycemic index of around 58, whereas table sugar has a glycemic index of about 63. This would lead you to believe that honey causes a much smaller spike in blood sugar levels than table sugar, which we do want. But…
A big problem with the glycemic index is that it doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t take into account portion size, or how much of that food you’re actually going to consume in a sitting. For example, you may have heard watermelon has a very high glycemic index of around 72, which is as high as the glycemic index of a donut. That high number for watermelon is based on consuming 5 cups of watermelon in a sitting, which is nowhere near the typical serving size for watermelon.
Even if we were to consider the glycemic index of these sugars, you’re using such small amounts at a time (for example, a teaspoon in your tea) that the marginal differences in glycemic index are irrelevant.
A better picture of how a food will affect your blood sugar levels is the glycemic load, which takes into account portion size. When you compare glycemic loads for the various sugars, you’ll see very similar effects across the board on blood sugar levels.

Unrefined sugars retain more minerals

True, again. Unrefined sugars are a little less processed so they retain more minerals, antioxidants, and other good-for-you plant nutrients that are removed during more extensive refining processes. BUT (there’s always a but)…
The amounts retained are so small that to reap any health benefits would require excessive sugar and, therefore, calorie consumption.
Take, for example, the mineral iron. A tablespoon of maple syrup provides around three times the iron of a tablespoon of table sugar. A tablespoon of honey provides 14 times that. Sure, that seems like a huge difference.
Now let’s think big picture here. When you compare the amount of iron you’re getting let’s say from that tablespoon of honey, which is 0.09 mg, to the recommended daily value for iron, which is 18 mg, it’s like pennies on a thousand dollars.
If you wanted to meet your daily iron requirements by consuming honey, you’d have to consume around 13 cups of honey. Or how about a staggering 50 cups of maple syrup.
Bottom line, you’d have to consume such high amounts of these unrefined sugars to obtain a significant health benefit from these minerals or antioxidants that any health benefits would then be entirely negated by all the sugar (and calories) you just consumed.
And let’s not forget, the amounts of minerals and antioxidants you’d get from consuming an appropriate amount of these sugar sources is nothing compared to what you’d get from your daily recommended amounts of fruits and veggies.

Refined vs unrefined sugar: which sugar is healthiest?

There’s just no sugar coating it. Sugar is sugar. When it comes to the debate over whether unrefined sugars and sweeteners are “healthier” than refined ones, remember that honey, maple syrup, and coconut sugar are all concentrated sources of sugar, just like table sugar. And consuming too much sugar, no matter the form, can lead to health problems.
Don’t get me wrong here, unrefined sugars aren’t worse for your health than refined ones (unless you’re consuming them in excess because you think they’re healthy). And although you shouldn’t consume an added sugar for the purpose of providing minerals or antioxidants in the diet, the trace amounts you do get from unrefined ones can’t hurt you.
But if you’re constantly shelling out double or triple the cash for these unrefined sweeteners simply because you think they’re better for you when you’d much prefer to bake cookies with plain old table sugar, then, by all means, buy the $1.50-a-bag sugar.
Or, if cost isn’t a factor, simply go with what tastes better to you or what works best in your recipes. For example, I love the taste of maple syrup and honey and many of my no-bake recipes require a liquid sweetener to hold together, so I use them frequently.
The goal here is to consume these added sugars in moderation, and if you’re doing so it ultimately doesn’t really matter which you choose.