What Is Cane Sugar?

A Guide to Buying, Using, and Storing Cane Sugar

Cane sugar

The Spruce Eats / Diana Chistruga

Cane sugar is a category of sugar that is made exclusively from sugar cane, as opposed to sugar products that are made from sugar beets, or from a combination of cane and beet. Cane sugar can come in many forms, including unrefined, raw, and refined. 

Fast Facts

  • Made from sugar cane
  • Available in unrefined, raw and refined
  • Contains anywhere from 0 to 14 percent molasses
  • Color ranges from white to brown

What Is Cane Sugar?

Cane sugar encompases a wide range of sugars, all of which are made from sugar cane, a plant similar to bamboo which grows in tropical climates. Cane sugar is made by chopping up the sugar cane, extracting its juice, boiling the liquid to produce a dark syrup, which is essentially unrefined molasses, and then crystallizing it. The crystallized syrup is then spun in a centrifuge to separate the crystals from the molasses. 

There are three main types of cane sugars: unrefined, raw and refined. These sugars differ in how they are processed, and the processing itself is mainly a function of washing the sugar to remove some, most or all of the molasses and other impurities.

So-called unrefined sugar, which does undergo quite a bit of refining, includes products such as muscovado, piloncillo and jaggery, among others. It's dark, retaining most of the molasses.

Raw sugar, which includes products like turbinado and demerara, is an intermediate stage, with medium to coarse crystals and blonde to light-brown coloring. Raw sugar retains a lesser but still noticeable amount of molasses flavor. 

Finally, refined sugar, which includes white granulated sugar, bakers' sugar and confectioners' sugar, is the purest form of sugar, with all the molasses and other impurities removed. It is ground to various fine consistencies, each of which has different applications. Interestingly, commercial brown sugars are made from refined white sugar that has had different amounts of molasses mixed back in to produce the various shades (light, golden or dark brown).

Cane Sugar Vs. Beet Sugar

While cane sugar is made from sugar cane, beet sugar is made from the root of a plant called the sugar beet. Once these products are refined, they are chemically identical. Both are pure sucrose. However, there is one notable difference between the two.

Cane sugar must be filtered through charcoal for it to achieve its pure white color, whereas beet sugar doesn't require this step. And it turns out that the charcoal used to filter cane sugar is sometimes made from something called bone char, which is derived from the bones of animals. Therefore some vegans opt to avoid cane sugar and use only beet sugar instead. 


There are three main types of cane sugar, and within those types there are numerous varieties. 

  • Unrefined cane sugars contain 8 to 14 percent molasses, and include products such as muscovado, piloncillo, jaggery, sucanat and panela, as well as traditional cane molasses, which has not had the sucrose crystals removed, and pure cane syrup. 
  • Raw cane sugars contain 2 to 3 percent molasses, and include products like demerara, turbinado, and evaporated or dried cane juice. 
  • Refined cane sugar includes granulated sugar, confectioners' sugar, decorators' sugar, and bakers' sugar, which in turn goes by various designations including fine, superfine and ultrafine, depending on the size of the crystals.

How to Cook With Cane Sugar

Cane sugar can be used directly from the package and requires no special preparation beforehand. It's added to recipes such as cookies, cakes and other desserts, and more than one type of cane sugar can sometimes be combined in a single recipe (white plus brown, for instance). Cane sugar is water soluble, and it melts when heated. It can also be used as a garnish, such as to add crunch on the top of muffins. 

Cane sugar
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Cane sugar
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Cane sugar
Cane sugar
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Cane sugar
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Cane sugar
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What Does It Taste Like?

Cane sugar is sweet, and each variety of cane sugar may have different flavor profiles depending on whether it's unrefined, raw or refined. Generally the less refined a sugar is, the more it will retain the flavor of molasses. Refined sugar is 99.95 percent sucrose, so it has a pure, clean, sweet flavor.

Cane Sugar Substitute

In the U.S., 55 to 60 percent of sugar is made from sugar beets, with the rest coming from sugar cane. So in terms of a substitute, beet sugar would be the main one. Honey, maple syrup, agave syrup, and coconut sugar can also be used as substitutes, as well as sweeteners such as stevia, xylitol and sucralose. 

Cane Sugar Recipes

Cane sugar is widely used in the culinary arts. Here are a few recipes that feature cane sugar.

Where To Buy Cane Sugar

Cane sugar is widely available, although some varieties are more easily found than others. The supermarket baking aisle will tend to carry most types of refined cane sugar, as well as many raw cane sugars. Unrefined cane sugars might take a bit more searching, but specialty food stores will certainly carry a wider variety of these, and you can also find them online.


Sugar doesn't spoil, so its shelf life is effectively infinite. In the case of some types of unrefined sugars that contain a higher proportion of molasses, as well as refined brown sugars, these can sometimes dry out and become clumpy and hard, so it's best to keep them tightly sealed and use them within a year or two.