The Most Nutritious Sugar: Dark Brown Sugar?


As indicated by its name, dark brown sugar has a distinctive brown colour, varying from brown to dark brown, and comes with a rich caramel flavour. Promotional slogans, like ‘Handmade Dark Brown Sugar’, ‘Traditional Dark Brown Sugar’ and ‘Dark Brown Sugar Prepared on the Spot’, are found in advertising leaflets of dark brown sugar-based products which also claim that the source and processing of dark brown sugar are more natural. It seems to be the best of all sugar types and beneficial to health. Recently, dark brown sugar-added drinks, like ginger tea and milk tea with tapioca pearls, have gained huge popularity among consumers. Actually, what is dark brown sugar? Does it have higher nutritional value?


Production of dark brown sugar

Dark brown sugar, like granulated sugar, is made from sugar cane. The difference in colour is determined by the processing procedures involved. For dark brown sugar, the sugar cane plants are finely cut and pressed to extract their juice which subsequently goes through precipitation and concentration procedures to become dark brown sugar. For granulated sugar, the extracted juice goes through further processes like centrifugation, dissolution, filtration and purification, to form white refined sugar free of impurities. Hence, dark brown sugar is not a highly refined sugar as it is not subject to refining process and less sophisticated equipment is required. The ‘Handmade Dark Brown Sugar’ market trend has been going strong, with much emphasis on its naturalness and zero additives as a regimen for health maintenance.


Nutritional value of dark brown sugar

As unrefined sugar, dark brown sugar retains more nutrients, like minerals (e.g. iron, zinc, calcium and potassium) and vitamins (e.g. B1, B2 and E). It seems to be highly nutritious when compared with granulated sugar. Let's take the calcium content in brown sugar as an example. Eating about a 101-gram of brown sugar has the same calcium content as drinking a glass of whole milk*. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) strongly recommended that people should reduce their intake of free sugar** to less than 10% of their daily total energy intake as far as possible. For a person whose daily energy requirement is 2000kcal, his/her daily consumption of free sugar should be no more than 50g. Hence, it is impractical to consume a 101g of dark brown sugar so as to get the same amount of calcium as drinking from a glass of whole milk.


Dark brown sugar is also made of sucrose and same as granulated sugar. Conversely, it contains minerals and vitamins but granulated sugar is lack of these. Additionally, it serves as an energy source for the body, but overeating of it will result in excessive calorie intake. As a type of sugar, it is located at the top of food pyramid, which should be consumed in moderate amounts. It is advisable to have a balanced and varied diet to get all the nutrients for the body needs.


Food safety concern over dark brown sugar

Besides associated with health maintenance, some people connect dark brown sugar with cancer formation; since, news media has once reported the presence of acrylamide in dark brown sugar, making it carcinogenic. The following explains why dark brown sugar is believed to cause cancer.


Acrylamide is naturally formed in certain food, particularly carbohydrate-rich food, during processing or cooking at high temperatures (in excess of 120°C), such as frying, baking, roasting and grilling. It forms from the chemical reaction between the free asparagine and reducing sugar present in food, and is commonly found in potato chips, biscuits, fried vegetables, coffee, fried fritters as well as dark brown sugar. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies acrylamide as a Group 2A agent, which is probably carcinogenic to humans. Yet, there is inadequate evidence derived from scientific studies that acrylamide is definitely carcinogenic to humans, so consumers need not be overly worried.


Acrylamide is widely present in food prepared at high temperatures, not only in dark brown sugar. So far, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CODEX) and many developed countries have not established the maximum limits of acrylamide in food. But, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) suggests reducing intake of acrylamide ‘As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA)’. It is advisable to eat a balanced and varied diet, instead of a single type of food, in order to reduce the risk of excessive intake of acrylamide.



*Every 100grams of dark brown sugar contains 273mg of calcium (the amount varies, as determined by the production process and batches of raw materials); whereas, a glass (240mL) of whole milk contains 276mg of calcium.


**Free sugar: refers to all monosaccharides (glucose and fructose) and disaccharides (sucrose and maltose) additionally added to food, plus the sugar that is naturally present in honey, syrup, fruit juice and concentrated fruit juice.