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Is brown sugar just sugar with molasses?

Brown sugar is a very common baking ingredient and sweetener used in many desserts, baked goods, and beverages. While it looks similar to regular white granulated sugar, it has a deeper flavor and moisture content that sets it apart. So what exactly makes brown sugar different from white sugar? Is it really just white sugar with some molasses added?

The Difference Between Brown Sugar and White Sugar

To understand what makes brown sugar unique, it helps to first look at how regular granulated white sugar is produced. The most common form of white sugar is sucrose, which comes from either sugarcane or sugar beets. To produce white sugar, the harvested cane or beets are crushed to extract the raw sugary juice inside. This juice is purified multiple times to remove impurities and then boiled down to form syrup. The syrup is further processed, dried and crystallized to form the white sugar crystals we are familiar with.

In contrast, brown sugar contains some residual molasses from the original sugarcane juice. Molasses is the dark brown syrup left over after processing and crystallizing most of the sucrose from the juice. Brown sugar can be made in two ways:

  • By adding some molasses back into fully refined white sugar
  • By removing less molasses from the original sugarcane juice during refinement

So while brown sugar does start from the same original sugarcane source as white sugar, it differs in that it retains some of the original molasses. The amount of molasses determines whether it is light or dark brown sugar. Light brown sugar has less molasses added than dark brown sugar.

Nutritional Profile

The molasses in brown sugar gives it a slightly different nutritional makeup than white sugar:

Nutrient White Sugar (per 100g) Light Brown Sugar (per 100g) Dark Brown Sugar (per 100g)
Calories 387 380 373
Protein 0g 0.25g 0.35g
Fat 0g 0g 0g
Carbs 99.91g 96.21g 93.46g
Fiber 0g 0.09g 0.14g
Calcium 1mg 85mg 162mg
Iron 0.01mg 1.04mg 1.79mg
Potassium 2mg 133mg 246mg

As you can see, brown sugar contains trace amounts of protein, fiber, calcium, iron and other minerals while white sugar contains virtually none. However, it is important to note that the amounts present in brown sugar are still very low and do not contribute significantly to your daily recommended intake.

Moisture Content

Another key difference between the two is moisture content. While dry white sugar is fully crystallized, brown sugar retains some moisture from the molasses. Light brown sugar typically contains about 3.5% water and dark brown sugar around 6.5% water. This moisture impacts the texture and clumping tendency of brown sugar.

The added moisture makes brown sugar softer and more prone to clumping and hardening. Properly storing brown sugar in an airtight container can help extend its shelf life and prevent excessive moisture loss and hardness.


Of course, the most notable difference between the two is the flavor. The molasses in brown sugar gives it a rich caramel or toffee-like taste, while white sugar has a basic sweet flavor.

Dark brown sugar has a deeper, more robust molasses flavor compared to light brown sugar due to its higher molasses content. The different flavors make them suitable for different applications. For instance, light brown sugar adds gentle caramel notes without overpowering other ingredients. Dark brown sugar’s intense flavor stands up well in bold baked goods like gingerbread or pumpkin pie.

Molasses also contributes complexity to the sweetness of brown sugar. While white sugar tastes simply sweet, the molasses adds slight bitter undertones that offset and enhance the sweetness.

Cooking and Baking Properties

When substituting brown sugar in place of white sugar in recipes, you need to account for moisture content. Packed brown sugar weighs roughly 25% more than white sugar by volume due to the added molasses. A cup of packed brown sugar weighs about 220g compared to 190g for a cup of white sugar.

Recipes like cookies and cakes that rely on creaming the butter and sugar will need moisture adjustments if substituting brown for white. Otherwise, the extra moisture in brown sugar can throw off the texture, making baked goods more dense or heavy.

The moisture also impacts how quickly brown sugar incorporates into batters. It dissolves a bit more slowly than white sugar. For this reason, recipes often recommend creaming butter with white sugar first before adding the dry ingredients.

The molasses notes brown sugar adds can also impact flavor in unexpected ways. In recipes with chocolate, brown sugar enhances the chocolate flavor. But in more delicate baked goods like meringues and buttercreams, the molasses can take over and muddy other flavors.

From a health perspective, brown and white sugar are very similar. While brown sugar retains some minerals from the molasses, the amounts are negligible and do not make a significant nutrition difference.

They have a nearly identical calorie content and effect on blood sugar. Both should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

Cost Differences

Brown sugar typically costs a little more than white sugar at the grocery store because of the additional processing steps involved:

  • White sugar costs around $0.75 to $1 per pound
  • Light brown sugar costs around $1 to $1.25 per pound
  • Dark brown sugar costs around $1.25 to $1.75 per pound

However, the price difference is usually fairly minor, especially for light brown sugar. Buying brown sugar in bulk quantities can also help reduce the cost per pound.

Types of Brown Sugar

There are a few varieties of brown sugar to know:

Light and Dark Brown Sugar

As mentioned, light brown sugar has less molasses added than dark brown. Dark brown sugar has a deeper flavor and color.

Muscovado Sugar

Muscovado sugar is an unrefined brown sugar made from pure sugarcane juice. It has a fudgy texture and rich toffee-like flavor.

Turbinado and Demerara Sugar

These are specialty raw cane sugars with a coarse texture. They are light golden in color and have mild molasses flavor.

Brown Sugar Syrup

Brown sugar syrup combines brown sugar with water to make a thick sweet syrup. It can replace molasses in recipes.

Common Questions

Is brown sugar healthier than white sugar?

No, brown sugar does not offer any significant nutritional benefits over white sugar despite the added molasses. Both should be eaten in moderation.

Can you substitute brown sugar for white sugar?

Yes, you can replace white sugar with brown sugar in recipes, but the results may differ. Adjustments to moisture and flavor may be needed.

Is brown sugar acidic?

Brown sugar has a slightly lower pH than white sugar due to the molasses, but it is still generally neutral or mildly acidic. It does not have significant effects on acidity.

Does brown sugar go bad?

Like white sugar, brown sugar has an indefinite shelf life if stored properly in an airtight container. Over time, it may dry out or become hard. But it does not truly expire.

Is brown sugar vegan?

Yes, brown sugar is generally vegan, though some cane sugar is processed using bone char. Organic brown sugar or sugar specifically marked as vegan is a safe bet for vegans.

Tips for Using Brown Sugar

  • Pack brown sugar firmly into measuring cups for accurate measurements.
  • Store in an airtight container at room temperature to prevent drying out.
  • If brown sugar hardens, place a piece of bread in the bag overnight to soften.
  • Substitute 1 cup white sugar for 1 cup packed brown sugar and reduce liquids slightly.
  • Add molasses to white sugar if you want the flavor without the moisture.
  • Opt for light brown sugar if you only want a hint of flavor.


While brown sugar is often described as white sugar with molasses added, the reality is slightly more complex. The molasses changes the moisture content, shelf life, flavor, and texture of brown sugar compared to white sugar. However, nutritionally they are very similar.

When using brown sugar in baking and cooking, moisture and flavor impact need to be considered. Overall, brown sugar adds a wonderful depth of flavor to desserts, baked goods and sauces. Just keep in mind that it differs from white sugar in more ways than just color!