What's the Difference Between Raw and Refined Sugar?
When it comes right down to it -- sugar is sugar. Whether that sugar is a small white crystal or a golden large crystal, both raw and refined sugar are calorically identical. The only difference is when the sugar reaches its final stage of production.
Both raw and refined sugar start out the same: as sugar cane. To make sugar, the cane is harvested, shredded, mixed with water and crushed between rollers to extract the juice. The extracted juice is filtered and evaporated, then further purified by filtering and boiling to remove molasses and color. The crystals are spun in a centrifuge and evaporated to produce Raw Sugar (also referred to as turbinado or unprocessed sugar). These crystals are large, have a slight golden brown color and retain a thin layer of molasses. The finished product is packaged and sent to a store near you.
Refined Sugar continues along the manufacturing process. In sugar processing, the term "refined" means the same thing as "purified." White sugar is combined with naturally occurring minerals to strip away impurities. The sugar is washed and filtered through carbon, decolorized and recrystallized. This purified sugar is further processed into a fine crystal form, dried and passed through multiple screens to remove minerals and impurities before it is packaged.
Over the years, refined sugar has gotten a bad rap. It is not the overly processed or manipulated product that some make it out to be. The refining process just makes sugar "more pure" through a chemical-free and bleach-free process.
When baking, it is important to stick to the type of sugar the recipe calls for. Raw Sugar and refined sugar are not interchangeable. Raw sugar does not dissolve as easily as refined sugar. It holds its shape when heated, making it good for crunchy toppings on sugar cookies or muffins, but not so great in cakes or puddings where smoothness and moisture is desired. Plus raw sugar retains a small hint of molasses flavor, which can change the taste profile of your recipe.
Learn more about the process it takes to go from sugar cane to pure cane sugar in this video, How Cane Sugar is Made.