What is refined sugar and how is it made?

White sugar or refined sugar is made from sugarcane. Sugar canes are extracted, boiled, and separated in order to make sugar. During the refining process, phosphoric acid, diatomaceous earth, and lime are used.

Why is sugar unhealthy?

Like many other fruits and vegetables, sugar cane is grown with the use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Organic sugarcane could be an alternative although that is very rare to find. The GI (Glycemic index) of refined sugar is 64 which is high – high GI foods cause spikes in blood sugar levels which in turn leads to various diseases including diabetes. Even brown sugar, or corn syrup which are claimed to be healthier alternatives for white sugar actually have a glycemic index of 64 and 62 respectively.

What are the healthier alternatives to sugar?

Palm sugar

Palm sugar is the sugar that comes from the sap of palm trees. The sap of the palm tree is taken by making cuts on the tree, gathering the sap, and boiling it to collect the palm sugar. Palm sugar tastes like a blend of refined sugar and jaggery and sweetens food items with nutritional benefits too. While you can sprinkle palm sugar on food items, it dissolves better in hot liquids.

The one disadvantage of palm sugar is that it leaves a sand-like residue that has to be taken out or left behind when you have your coffee.

Please know that what we are talking about palm sugar here which is taken from palm trees sap and not coconut sugar which is made from the flowers of coconut sugar. Although, both are natural sugars too palm sugar is the healthier alternative.

Palm sugar
Image source : Courtesy: Eliza Adam.


Jaggery is commonly used in Asia (especially India) and in parts of Africa. The major part of jaggery is sucrose, and also contains wood ash and proteins. The pure yellow kind of jaggery is purified, powdered, and used as a replacement for white sugar. Jaggery helps in better digestion, it acts as a detox and clears up your liver and purifies your blood. It is rich in anti-oxidants and this means it builds immunity and is also good for kids. Jaggery is rich in iron and hence can be good for those trying to fight anemia and to increase hemoglobin levels.

Jaggery is used for making a variety of sweets. A syrup is made with jaggery by boiling it along with water. This hot syrup is used to bind ingredients together to make various sweets.

Image source: – Credit ‘Giridhar Appaji Nag Y’


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Honey has been used for decades across the globe in various herbal teas, sweets, and juices. Pure honey is extracted from honeycombs and does not contain sugar. Honey is the perfect substitute for sugar – it blends easily with all drinks, can be generously used in the preparation of sweets, and does not have a strong taste. The GI of raw honey is only 30 which less than half of that of refined sugar. The sweet taste comes from the natural combination of fructose and glucose present in honey. A few of the health benefits of honey are:

  • It is rich in zinc, potassium, phosphorous, and calcium.
  • It is rich in vitamins B6, riboflavin, and niacin.
  • Honey is known to treat various allergies and also prevents a variety of allergies in adults and children.
  • Honey and cinnamon are used for various health benefits while honey along the lemon and hot water is used for weight loss. You could see the benefits here.

Maple syrup

Maple syrup – just the name reminds us of the beautiful country of Canada. Unlike white sugar with very little nutrition, maple syrup has a variety of benefits. Similar to honey, maple syrup also has high nutrition value – it contains protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and small amounts of fat. As far as glycemic index score goes, it stands at 54 for maple syrup.

But maple syrup has a unique flavor and cannot be used in all food items. It can however be a tasty accompaniment for bread, cereal, pancakes, dessert, and even shakes.

Maple syrup
Image source: Credit – Wiennat Mongkulmann

Brown rice syrup

Brown rice syrup is one of the sugar alternatives with really low GI. The GI of brown rice syrup is just 25. One problem is that it is not that commonly available and you may have to stock it. But the problem with brown rice syrup is that this syrup is made from rice and is a caloric sweetener.

This sweetener does not have much in terms of nutrition but whatever calories it brings with it is empty calories. But then, so does sugar! So might as well go with the lesser GI option.

There are a few other options such as cane sugar juice, barley malt syrup but these are less healthier than the options detailed above. My personal favorites are jaggery, palm sugar, and honey!

With an array of options available, we might as well choose the ones which are healthier.


Ball, D. W., 2007. The Chemical Composition of Maple Syrup. s.l.:Chemical Education.

Handel, E. V., 1968. Direct microdetermination of sucrose. Analytical Biochemistry, 22(2), pp. 280-283.

Miller, J. C., 1994. Importance of glycemic index in diabetes. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 59(3), pp. 747S-752S.

Molina-Sabio, M., RoodRiguez-Reinoso, F., Caturla, F. & Selles, M. J., 1995. Porosity in granular carbons activated with phosphoric acid. Carbon, 33(8), pp. 1105-1113.

Van Dam, H. E., Keiboom, A. P. G. & Van Bekkum, H., 1986. he Conversion of Fructose and Glucose in Acidic Media: Formation of Hydroxymethylfurfural. s.l.:Starch Biosynthesis Nutrition Bomedical.

Ramya Srinivasan, PDGBA, earned her Master’s degree in Business. As a result of her passion in native medicine, she got her Diploma in Traditional Siddha Medicine from Bharat Sevak Samaj registered under the Indian Planning Commission. She is certified by Stanford University School of Medicine in Introduction to Food and Health.