Turbinado sugar is a more minimally processed alternative to white sugar, containing traces of molasses. However, its nutritional benefits are limited, and it tends to be pricier.
Characterized by its golden-brown color, turbinado sugar comprises large crystals.
You can find it in most grocery stores and health food outlets; some cafes even offer it in individual packets.
If you’re contemplating whether this natural-looking sugar is a healthier substitute for white sugar, this piece provides insights into turbinado sugar and its applications.
What is turbinado sugar?
Turbinado sugar is partially refined and retains some of the original molasses, giving it a subtle caramel flavor.
It’s made from sugarcane — a non-genetically modified crop, some of which is organically grown.
Sometimes, turbinado sugar is called raw sugar — a marketing term implying that it’s minimally processed. However, despite this name, the sugar is not really “raw.”
According to the FDA, the initial stages of sugar processing yield raw sugar, but raw sugar isn’t suitable for consumption as it’s contaminated with soil and other impurities. Turbinado sugar has been cleaned of this debris and is further refined, meaning it isn’t raw.
Another reason turbinado sugar isn’t raw is that it includes boiling sugarcane juice to thicken and crystallize it.
Notably, turbinado sugar comes with a higher price tag than white sugar — generally costing two to three times more.
Summary: Turbinado sugar is partially refined sugar that retains some of the original molasses from the sugarcane and has a subtle caramel flavor. It may cost up to three times as much as white sugar.
Turbinado sugar is nutritionally similar to white sugar
White sugar and turbinado sugar each have 16 calories and 4 grams of carbs per teaspoon (about 4 grams) but no fiber.
Turbinado sugar contains trace amounts of calcium and iron, but you won’t get 1% of your reference daily intake for these minerals per teaspoon.
It also provides antioxidants from the molasses left behind during processing — but the amounts are relatively small.
For example, you would have to eat 5 cups (1,025 grams) of turbinado sugar to get the same amount of antioxidants as in a 2/3 cup (100 grams) of blueberries.
Health organizations advise limiting your intake of added sugars to 10% or less of your daily calories — which equals 12.5 teaspoons (50 grams) of sugar if you need 2,000 calories a day. However, the less sugar you eat, the better.
A higher intake of added sugars is linked to adverse health effects, such as an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and worsening memory — not to mention its role in promoting tooth decay.
Therefore, consider turbinado sugar a flavor enhancer to use occasionally in small amounts, rather than a source of nutrition.
Summary: Turbinado sugar matches white sugar for calories and carbs. The small amounts of minerals and antioxidants it provides are relatively insignificant. Like other types of sugar, it’s best used only in small amounts.
Processing of brown sugars
Sugar goes through many processing steps.
This includes pressing juice from the sugarcane, which is boiled in large steam evaporators to form crystals and spun in a turbine to remove liquid molasses.
Whereas white sugar has virtually all of the molasses removed and goes through further refining to remove traces of color, only molasses on the surface of turbinado sugar crystals is removed. This generally leaves less than 3.5% molasses by weight.
Suggested read: Muscovado sugar: What it is, uses, and substitutes
In contrast, brown sugar is typically made by adding molasses in precise amounts to white sugar. Light brown sugar contains 3.5% molasses, while dark brown sugar has 6.5% molasses.
Both types of brown sugar are moister than turbinado sugar due to the additional molasses and have smaller crystals.
Two other types of brown sugars are demerara and muscovado, which are minimally refined and retain some of the original molasses.
Demerara sugar has crystals that are larger and lighter in color than turbinado sugar. It generally contains 1–2% molasses.
Muscovado sugar is very dark brown and has fine, soft, sticky crystals. It contains 8–10% molasses, giving it a more robust flavor.
Summary: Brown sugars — including turbinado, demerara, muscovado, and light and dark brown sugar — vary in their degree of processing, molasses content, and crystal size.
How to use turbinado sugar
You can use turbinado sugar for general sweetening purposes, but it is an especially useful topping for foods, as the large crystals hold up well under heat.
Turbinado sugar works well for the following:
- Top hot cereals, such as oatmeal and cream of wheat.
- Sprinkle on whole-grain muffins, scones, and quick bread.
- Mix in a dry spice rub for smoking or grilling meat or poultry.
- Sprinkle on baked sweet potatoes or roasted carrots and beets.
- Make candied nuts, such as pecans and almonds.
- Dress up baked fruit like pear, apple, or peach halves.
- Mix into a graham cracker pie crust.
- Decorate the tops of pies, apple crisp, and crème brûlée.
- Sprinkle on top of whole-wheat sugar cookies for a natural look.
- Mix with cinnamon and use on whole-grain toast.
- Sweetened coffee, tea, or other hot beverages.
- Make a natural body scrub or face exfoliant.
You can buy turbinado sugar in bulk, in single-serve packets, and as sugar cubes. Store it in an airtight container to prevent it from hardening.
Suggested read: Self-rising flour substitutes: 12 clever options
Summary: Turbinado sugar is commonly used to top hot cereals, baked goods, and desserts since the large crystals hold up well to heat. It’s also a popular hot beverage sweetener.
Turbinado sugar substitutes
Though you can generally substitute an equal amount of turbinado sugar for white sugar in recipes, each lends itself to specific applications.
For example, white sugar is the better choice if you want a pristine white color and smooth texture — such as in whipped cream — or if you’re making a citrus-flavored dessert — such as lemon pie.
On the other hand, the slight molasses flavor of turbinado sugar works well in bran muffins, apple pie, and barbecue sauce.
Notably, the larger crystals of turbinado sugar and smaller white sugar crystals don’t dissolve. Therefore, it may not work as well in some baked goods.
A test kitchen experiment found that turbinado sugar easily replaced white sugar in baked goods made with moist, pourable batters like cake. However, it didn’t work well in drier mixtures, such as for cookies, since the sugar didn’t dissolve.
You may also use turbinado sugar instead of other brown sugars and vice versa. Here are a few substitution tips:
- To make a turbinado sugar substitute: Blend half brown sugar and half white sugar to replace the total amount of turbinado sugar.
- To replace brown sugar with turbinado: Adjust the recipe to add moisture, such as honey or applesauce; otherwise, your baked goods may dry.
- To use demerara instead of turbinado sugar and vice versa: You can generally substitute one for the other in recipes without making special adjustments since these are similar in texture and flavor.
- To replace muscovado with turbinado (or demerara) sugar: Add a small amount of molasses to turbinado sugar to replicate the flavor and moistness of muscovado sugar.
Summary: You can generally replace white sugar in a recipe with turbinado, though it may slightly alter the final product’s color, flavor, and texture. Using turbinado sugar instead of other brown-colored sugars may require adjustments for moisture.
Turbinado sugar is less processed than white sugar, which retains small amounts of molasses.
However, it does not contribute significant nutritional value and is rather expensive.
Though it can be a flavorful ingredient, sweetener, or topping, it’s best used in moderation – like all types of sugar.
Suggested read: Brown sugar vs. white sugar: What’s the difference?