Ingredient Intelligence

What’s the Difference Between Brown Sugar and White Sugar?

published Oct 18, 2022
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Left to right: Brown sugar on measuring spoon; white sugar on measuring spoon.
Credit: From left to right: Joe Lingeman; Michelle Patrick/Shutterstock

It’s happened before and, despite my best efforts, it’ll probably happen again: I embark on a weekend baking project, sifting flour and leveling off spoonfuls of cocoa powder, when I realize I don’t have quite as much granulated sugar as the recipe calls for.

What to do? Put on real clothes and go to the store? In my desperation, I eye the brown sugar. Can I stay in my slippers and make up the difference with a few pinches of light brown sugar? Well, the short answer is, it depends on the recipe. Let’s take a look at the differences between white and brown sugar to find out when it will work and when it won’t and if one is healthier than the other.

What’s the Difference Between White Sugar and Brown Sugar?

Sugars are classified by their grain size and color. Within white and brown sugar, there are several different types, which we’ll explain below. Those differences are the result of how the sugar is processed. According to the Sugar Association, sugar is made by extracting sugar juice from sugar beets or sugar cane plants. The juice is then purified, filtered, and crystalized into raw golden sugar. From there, the sugar is processed into its final form. For granulated sugar, this means all of the molasses is extracted. For brown sugar, molasses is retained, creating a darker color, caramel flavor, and richer texture.

Can I Substitute Brown Sugar for White Sugar?

Technically, you can substitute brown sugar for white sugar and vice versa at a 1-to-1 ratio, meaning one tablespoon of white sugar can be swapped for one tablespoon of brown sugar without compromising the flavor of the final product. However, because brown sugar contains molasses and tends to clump, it will yield a final product that’s chewier with hints of caramel flavor.

Brown sugar works well for adding moisture to baked goods, whereas granulated sugar will create a more aerated crumb and crispier texture. For that reason, when substituting brown sugar for white sugar, it may be useful to increase the dry ingredients or decrease the wet ingredients to achieve the desired texture, but there’s no standard formula for doing so, and each recipe will require its own level of tweaking. Or, if you’re using brown sugar instead of white sugar, you may want to use a little less brown sugar than what’s called for in the recipe. To swap white sugar for brown, add a bit of molasses or even maple syrup to the granulated sugar (one cup granulated sugar to one tablespoon molasses or maple syrup).

Types of White Sugar

  • Granulated sugar: Also known as table sugar, common in baking. When a recipe calls for “sugar,” it usually refers to granulated sugar.
  • Caster sugar: The superfine crystals in caster sugar make it a great choice for delicate recipes, and it can be used instead of simple syrup in drinks. You can make caster sugar at home by pulsing granulated sugar in the food processor until fine.
  • Powdered sugar: The byproduct of ground, sifted sugar, powdered sugar is often a finishing element and is useful for making frosting.

Types of Brown Sugar

  • Light brown sugar: Adds chewy texture and caramel notes to baked good and sauces.
  • Dark brown sugar: Contains more molasses than light brown sugar and is well-suited to gingerbread. Dark brown sugar can be substituted for light brown sugar, but the final product will have a deeper flavor and possibly a darker color.
  • Muscovado sugar: Coarse crystals that contain natural molasses make this a good choice for recipes that require a deeper molasses flavor.
  • Turbinado sugar: A type of raw cane sugar, turbinado sugar has a mild flavor and light brown color. It’s perfect for giving baked goods a crunchy top layer.
  • Demerara sugar: Similar to turbinado sugar, demerara sugar has a fairly large grain and a pale amber color. Like turbinado, you can use it to create a sweet, crispy topping on baked goods.

Is Brown Sugar Healthier than White Sugar?

The short answer is no, brown sugar is not healthier than white sugar. “The difference between white and brown sugar is negligible when it comes to nutrition,” says registered dietician Jessica Fentress. “White sugar has been stripped of the molasses that is naturally found in the sugar cane. In the process of making brown sugar, they actually take white sugar and add molasses back in, usually around 5 to 10%. This percentage will determine if it is light brown sugar or dark brown sugar. The added molasses doesn’t make much of a difference when it comes to nutrition.”

There’s not a significant caloric difference between white and brown sugar, either. “According to the USDA FoodData Central, white sugar has 16 calories per teaspoon and brown sugar has 15 calories per teaspoon,” Fentress adds. “Both sugars will be broken down into glucose, which is the body’s preferred source of energy. Brown sugar does have trace micronutrients that white sugar does not, namely calcium, but would need to be consumed in large quantities to really be a significant source. Overall, choose the sugar that will taste best in your recipe! One is not ‘healthier’ than the other.”

Now that you know the differences between white and brown sugar, it’s time to get baking!

A Few of Our Favorite Brown Sugar Recipes

A Few of Our Favorite White Sugar Recipes