We hear so much about the negative effects of sugar—from obesity to tooth decay to cancer—it might surprise you to learn that sugar has some unique beneficial properties. It’s important to understand that not all sugars are created equal. If you want to reap the health benefits of sugar, it must be truly unrefined raw sugar.
Many foods tout the use of “organic sugar cane” or “organic cane sweetener” on their labels, lulling consumers into thinking that this somehow implies health benefits. In truth, these products are really no different from any other refined sugar. People often assume that “organic” means “unrefined,” but all it means is that the cane is grown using organic agricultural methods; the sugars are still refined in the usual way. This type of sugar is still completely or partially refined, and is not at all a whole food.
The Conventional Process of Refining Sugar
Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum Linn.) is an important perennial grass indigenous to tropical South Asia and Southeast Asia. Because of the culinary, economic and medicinal value of sugarcane, the crop is cultivated worldwide.
Refined sugar, including “raw” sugar, is a highly processed product made by heating, clarifying, and dehydrating cane juice until crystals form. The crystals are spun in a centrifuge to separate them from the syrupy juice (molasses). The refined crystals are then reunited with some of the molasses in artificial proportions to create brown sugar or raw sugar. Molasses contains vitamins and minerals and can be included as part of a healthy diet, but the sugar crystals are essentially highly refined “empty carbs.”
White sugar made from cane juice employs an array of chemicals including sulphur dioxide, lime, phosphoric acid, bleaching agents and viscosity reducers. The mineral salts are considered impurities and are removed, leaving miniscule amounts behind. Brown sugar isn’t much better—it’s just refined white sugar with a bit of molasses added.1
Non-Centrifugal Sugar is a Much Healthier Option
Non-centrifugal sugar (NCS) is the technical name of the product obtained by evaporating the water in sugar cane juice. Basically, NCS is simply unrefined raw sugar cane.2
NCS is known by many different names in the world, the most important being un-refined muscovado, whole cane sugar, panela (Latin America), jaggery (South Asia), kokuto (Japan), and Rapadura (Rapunzel brand),2 which with muscovado, are my two favorite types of NCS.
NCS is made from dried whole sugar juice, ground to create a very fine, granular sugar that can be substituted in a 1:1 ratio for refined sugars. Because it has not been cooked at high heat and the molasses has not been separated from the sugar, it has nutritional value—unlike refined sugars, which have none. Many of these NCS, including Rapadura and muscovado sugars, are also produced organically and do not contain chemicals or anti-caking agents. Color variations depend on heating during processing of NCS.2 Not only do non-centrifugal sugars have a superior nutritional profile, they also have a delicious taste, with a subtle caramel flavor and color.
The Nutritional Profile of Sugarcane
Researchers have classified the colored components from sugarcane juice into four major classes: Plant pigments, polyphenolic compounds, caramels, and degradation products of sugars condensed with amino derivatives.
Sugarcane juice contains a variety of compounds including policosanols and long-chain aldehydes, volatile aroma profiles, and antioxidants. Apigenin, tricin, and luteoline glycosides including orientin, vitexin, schaftoside, and swertisin are among the active constituents in sugarcane juice. Some of the health benefits attributed to these compounds include anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-hyperglycemic, diuretic, and hepatoprotective effects.3
The displacement of NCS by refined sugar is a critical component of the broad changes in global food consumption patterns characterized by increased consumption of fats, refined sugars, and refined flours. The corresponding large increase in caloric intake is clearly linked to obesity and the related diseases of diabetes, strokes and other degenerative diseases.4
Health Benefits of Unrefined “Raw” Sugar Cane Juice (NCS)
Raw sugar cane juice has long been used in traditional medicine for a variety of health conditions. Ayurveda prescribes herbal formulations containing sugarcane derivatives for the management of iron deficiency anemia. It makes sense, because raw sugar contains molasses, which is rich in iron, and it also contains natural absorption enhancers such as sulfur, fructose, and copper.5 In the Unani system of medicine, sugarcane is considered beneficial for the liver and jaundice patients are advised to take a large amount of sugarcane juice for immediate relief.6
Worldwide, there has been a significant amount of research on NCS. The first scientific paper to mention the health effects of NCS was published in 1937, when researchers reported the protective effect of raw sugar on the decalcification of teeth7 followed by a report on the effect of panela consumption on anemia.8
John Yudkin, a renowned British nutritionist, discovered in 1951 that unrefined muscovado promotes the survival of newborn rats and postulated the existence of a ‘‘reproductive factor R’’ required for the proper viability of rat pups.9 These findings were reconfirmed by Yudkin 25 years later10 when he was attempting to replicate the work of Soviet scientists who reported wide-ranging positive health effects of unrefined sugar on rats.7 One of these doctors was I.I. Breckman, the preeminent Russian researcher who did extensive research on adaptogens. Toward the end of his life Breckman concentrated on the health benefits of raw sugar and molasses. He cautiously concluded that ‘‘in certain circumstances, unrefined muscovado sugar might contribute to the nutritional value of a human diet.’’11 The systematic and sustained research on the health effects of NCS started in Japan in the 1980s, where several groups from companies, universities and government institutions noted various physiological effects of kokuto, the NCS used in Japan.
The studied health benefits of raw sugarcane juice include:
- Analgesic activity13
- Liver protective14
- Blood sugar normalizing15
- Diuretic activity16,17
- Acetylcholine release18
- Antihypercholesterolemic effect20
- Antithrombotic activity21, 22
- Contains beneficial microbes that enhance healthy gut flora23
- Immunological and redox-anti-oxidant effects 24,25
- Anticariogenic effects26,27
Sugarcane juice is enjoyed as a nutritious beverage in India and is considered a unique source of variable hydrophilic components with beneficial biological activities.12 Because it is rich in complex energy producing carbohydrates, iron, potassium and other essential nutrients, sugarcane juice is an ideal energy drink. Combined with adaptogens and herbal teas (such as my Schi-Zam tea blend) it makes a naturally hydrating, energizing beverage.
The bottom line is that if you want to use sugar, choose a minimally processed, non-crystallized sugar, and use it in moderation with plenty of healthful whole grains and fats to slow the metabolism of sugar into the blood stream. The following recipes are two of my favorites:
Donnie’s Orange-Coconut Cake
This is one of my favorite cakes. It’s great the first day, and the flavors are even richer the second or third day.
I use freshly ground gluten-free oat flour, but I have also made it with freshly ground Kamut. If you use gluten-free flour be sure to add ½ tsp. of xanthium gum to help bind the mixture.
This cake is delicious as is, but it’s even better with buttercream frosting (see my recipe below). Enjoy!
- 1 ¼ cups whole grain flour
- ½ tsp. of xanthium gum (if using gluten-free flour)
- 1 ¼ cups Pamela’s Pancake mix
- 1 ¼ cups unsweetened shredded coconut
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- ½ tsp. fine sea salt
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup coconut oil
- ½ cup Rapunzel or muscovado (or highest-quality raw sugar)
- ½ cup maple syrup
- ½ cup fresh squeezed orange juice
- 1-2 tsp. fresh orange zest
- 1 tsp. coconut extract (optional)
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 tsp. orange extract (optional, but provides excellent flavor)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Oil a 9×9 inch baking pan with coconut oil or butter and dust with flour, tapping out the excess.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients.
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk or beat the wet ingredients until thoroughly combined.
- Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix just until combined.
- Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 25-30 minutes. Cool in the pan for 30 minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.
- Top with buttercream frosting, if desired.
This delicious frosting is wonderful on cakes or muffins. You can add 3-4 ounces of sifted cocoa or carob powder to make a rich chocolate frosting.
- 4 egg yolks
- 6 oz. Rapadura or muscovado, or other high-quality raw sugar
- 6 oz. maple syrup
- 6 oz. softened sweet butter or coconut oil
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- Have a greased metal measuring cup ready near the stovetop.
- Beat egg yolks until light yellow in color.
- In a medium saucepan, combine Rapadura (or other raw sugar) with maple syrup. Bring to a boil, and transfer immediately to prepared measuring cup.
- Gradually pour hot sugar/syrup mixture into eggs in a slow stream, beating steadily while pouring.
- Gradually beat in butter or coconut oil (or a mixture of the two).
- Add vanilla, and continue beating for 3-5 minutes, or until frosting is light and fluffy.
- García JM,Narváez PC, Heredia FJ, Orjuela Á, Osorio C. Physicochemical and sensory (aroma and colour) characterisation of a non-centrifugal cane sugar (“panela”) beverage, Food Chem. 2017 Aug 1;228:7-13. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2017.01.134. Epub 2017 Jan 29.
- Weerawatanakorn M,Asikin Y, Takahashi M, Tamaki H, Wada K, Ho CT, Chuekittisak R. Physico-chemical properties, wax composition, aroma profiles, and antioxidant activity of granulated non-centrifugal sugars from sugarcane cultivars of Thailand, J Food Sci Technol. 2016 Nov;53(11):4084-4092. doi: 10.1007/s13197-016-2415-5.
- Jain R,Venkatasubramanian P. Sugarcane Molasses – A Potential Dietary Supplement in the Management of Iron Deficiency Anemia, J Diet Suppl. 2017 Sep 3;14(5):589-598. doi: 10.1080/19390211.2016.1269145. Epub 2017 Jan 26.
- Popkins, B.M. 2006. The nutrition transition in the developing world. Development Policy Review 21: 581–597.
- Jaffee’, Walter, Sugar Tech (Apr-June 2012) 14(2):87–94
- W.B., J.N. Noriskin, and J. Staz. 1937a. Inhibition in vitro of decalcification in teeth. Journal of Dental Research 16: 545–550.
- Jaffe, W.G., and A.E. Ochoa. 1949. El papelo´n como fuente de hierro en la dieta popular Venezolana. Revista Venezolana de Quı´mica 21.
- Wiesner, B.P., and J. Yudkin. 1951. Nutritional factors in reproductive failure. Nature 167: 979–980.
- Eisa, O.A., and J. Yudkin. 1985. Some nutritional properties of unrefined sugar and its promotion of the survival of new-born rats. British Journal of Nutrition 54: 593–603.
- Brekhman, I.I., and I.F. Nesterenko. 1983. Brown Sugar and Health. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
- Singh A,Lal UR, Mukhtar HM, Singh PS, Shah G, Dhawan RK., Phytochemical profile of sugarcane and its potential health aspects, Pharmacogn Rev. 2015 Jan-Jun;9(17):45-54. doi: 10.4103/0973-7847.156340.
- Jin YF, Liang HZ, Cao CY, Wang ZW, Shu RS, Li XY. Immunological activity of bagasse polysaccharides (author’s transl) Zhongguo Yao Li Xue Bao. 1981;2:269–75.
- Arruzazabala ML, Carbajal D, Mas R, Molina V, Valdes S, Laguna A. Cholesterol lowering effects of policosanol in rabbits. Biol Res. 1994;27:205–8.
- Takahashi M, Konno C, Hikino H. Isolation and hypoglycemic activity of saccharin A, B, C, D, E and F glycans of Saccharum officinarum stalks. Planta Med. 1985;3:258–60.
- Ribeiro Rde A, Fiuza de Melo MM, De Barros F, Gomes C, Trolin G. Acute antihypertensive effect in conscious rats produced by some medicinal plants used in the state of São Paulo. J Ethnopharmacol. 1986;15:261–9.
- Cáceres A, Girón LM, Alvarado SR, Torres MF. Screening of antimicrobial activity of plants popularly used in the Guatemala for the treatment of dermatomucosal diseases. J Ethnopharmacol. 1987;20:223–37.
- Re L, Barocci S, Capitaini C, Vivani C, Ricci M, Rinaldi L, et al. Effects of some natural extracts on the acetylcholine release at the mouse neuromuscular junction. Pharmacol Res. 1999;39:239–45.
- Ledón N, Casacó A, Rodríguez V, Cruz J, González R, Tolón Z, et al. Antiinflammatory and analgesic effects of a mixture of fatty acids isolated and purified from sugarcane wax oil. Planta Med. 2003;69:367–9.
- Arruzazabala ML, Noa M, Menéndez R, Más R, Carbajal D, Valdés S, et al. Protective effect of policosanol on atherosclerotic lesions in rabbits with exogenous hypercholesterolemia. Braz J Med Biol Res. 2000;33:835–40.
- Molina V, Arruzazabala ML, Carbajal D, Más R. D003, a potential antithrombotic compound isolated from sugar cane wax with effects on arachidonic acid metabolites. Prostaglandins Leuko Essent Fatty Acids. 2002;67:19–24.
- Molina V, Arruzazabala ML, Carbajal D, Más R, Valdés S. Antiplatelet and antithrombotic effect of D003. Pharmacol Res. 2000;42:137–43.
- Mehnaz S., Microbes – friends and foes ofsugarcane, J Basic Microbiol. 2013 Dec;53(12):954-71. doi: 10.1002/jobm.201200299. Epub 2013 Jan 15.
- Takara, K., K. Otsuka, K. Wada, H. Iwasaki, and M. Yamashita. 2007a. 1,1-Diphenyl-2-picrylhydrazyl radical scavenging activity and tyrosinase inhibitory effects of constituents of sugar cane molasses. Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry 71: 183–191.
- El-Abasy, M., M. Motobu, K. Shimura, K.-J. Na, C.-B. Kang, K. Koge, T. Onodera, and Y. Hirota. 2002. Immunostimulating and sugarcane juice and its protective role against radiation induced DNA damage. Food Chemistry 106: 1154–1160.
- M., and G.N. Jenkins. 1967. The effects of honey and Barbados sugar upon the rate of calcium phosphate solubility in different media. Presented at International Association for Dental Research, Fifteenth Annual Meeting of the British Division, Queens College,
- Jenkins, G.N. 1970. Enamel protective factors in food. Journal of Dental Research 6(Suppl.): 1318–1325.