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What is Granulated Sugar (White Sugar, Table Sugar, or Refined Sugar)

Mary McMahon
Updated Nov 29, 2021
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Granulated sugar, also sometimes known as “refined,” “table,” or “white” sugar, is beet or cane sugar which has been processed, allowed to crystallize, and then dried so that the crystals do not clump together. Many people think of granulated sugar when they hear the word “sugar,” and this variety is readily available in most markets and food shops around the world. It is very commonly used in cooking and baking, and recipes that call for sugar without specifying the type usually mean granulated.

Common Uses of Granulated Sugar

This sort of highly processed sugar is one of the most popular baking ingredients in the world. It is a simple carbohydrate that dissolves well, melts easily, and blends into a wide variety of other ingredients. It is frequently used in any number of baked goods, and is also popular in small amounts to balance savory sauces and soups. It has a subtle flavor that usually complements other tastes rather than competing with them, which makes it a very easy way to add sweetness without disrupting a dish or confection’s main taste profile. People also use it to sweeten drinks, particularly coffee and tea, and many manufacturers sell it in pre-measured single-serving packets or pressed into small sugar cubes for this purpose.

Most “table” or standard granulated sugar has a fine, powdery consistency, but it is sometimes possible to find even more refined varieties. Caster and the so-called “superfine” sugar are variations that are distinguished more by the size of the crystals than anything about the way they have been processed or refined, and are prized in many more delicate desserts and baked foods like souffles that need to be light and airy.

Where Granulated Sugar Comes From

Sugar is a naturally-occurring compound that can be found in most plant and animal cells. Most fruits, for instance, have very high sugar concentrations, which is one of the reasons that they taste so sweet. People since ancient times have looked for ways of extracting this sweetness so that it can be used on its own, a process known as “refinement,” and granulated sugar is one of the most popular results.

Refinement typically works best when there are very high concentrations of sugar to begin with. Manufacturers usually choose to work with either sugar beets or cane, two plants that contain large stores of natural sugars. Refining from other fruits, like apples or peaches, can be very time consuming and also tends to leave a lot of waste.

Granulated Sugar Refining Process

Making granulated sugar is a multi-step process. Refiners begin by isolating the sugar crystals in the beet or cane, usually through diffusion. During diffusion, the sugar source is soaked in water, ground or pulverized to expose its inner cells, then left to evaporate, often over mesh sieves or fine cloth where the crystals can be collected. At this stage, the crystals are usually light brown or tan in color.

Raw sugar isn’t quite the same as granulated sugar, though; in most cases, a lot more processing is required to get from one point to the next. First comes “affination,” where refiners break the crystals down with water and often some sort of phosphorous compound. Affination usually results in a thick sugary syrup that manufacturers have to heat and then quickly cool in order to get the sugar to re-crystallize. They sometimes use chemical agents to help speed things up. The result is usually two-fold: fine white granules and rich, dark syrup. Refiners typically sell one as granulated sugar and the other as molasses.

Is Cane Sugar the Same as Granulated Sugar?

Cane sugar is similar to granulated sugar, but cane sugar is made only out of sugar cane, not sugar beets. Cane sugar is also less processed than other types of sugars. Cane sugar has a golden hue to it, whereas granulated sugar is white. The color of cane sugar comes from molasses that remains in the crystals after the refining process. Cane sugar crystals are also slightly larger compared to granulated sugar. Despite these differences, cane sugar usually makes a nice substitute for granulated sugar in certain recipes.

Storage Tips and Shelf Life

Refinement helps the sugar resist clumping in part because it dries the crystals out so much. People who live in warm climates or whose sugar is exposed to high humidity may still experience clumping, though; this is harmless, but can make precise measuring more difficult and can also impact how evenly sugar dissolves or incorporates into different batters or broths. People can often break up clumps with their fingers or the backside of a spoon, though stubborn lumps may need the help of a food processor or blender. Keeping the crystals in an airtight container in a cool, dry place is one of the best ways to prevent clumps in the first place.

Sugar rarely spoils, and will stay fresh for a year or more. Past this point, the granules don’t really become harmful, but they may begin to lose their taste or begin to take on the flavors of their storage environment. Most food experts recommend using table sugar within a few months of purchase for the best results.

Substitutions for Granulated Sugar

Granulated versions of sugar are widely available in most places, though there are times when people may want to substitute other, less processed alternatives, either as a way of reducing sugar intake or as a means of making a more healthful selection. So-called “raw” sugar is a popular alternative in many markets. Raw sugar is usually collected before affination, which means that its crystals are slightly larger and often appear somewhat tan in color. It tends to taste somewhat sweeter and it usually dissolves more slowly than granulated versions, which means that people can use less.

People looking to avoid sugar entirely may also look to natural substances like honey, agave, and stevia, and there are usually a number of chemical sweeteners available, too. Bakers usually need to be somewhat careful of using substitutions in recipes, however; different substances react differently when blended and heated. Using the chemical sweetener aspartame in baked goods doesn’t usually work out, for instance, and using the honey — which is wet and sticky — can often change the overall texture of the final product that was intended to have been made with sugar. It’s usually a good idea for cooks to spend a little bit of time experimenting before replacing white sugar entirely.

Can I Substitute Brown Sugar for Granulated Sugar?

People are often tempted to equate white sugar with brown sugar, but the two are quite different, and substituting one for the other rarely ends well. In many cases, brown sugar is little more than granulated white sugar to which manufacturers have added molasses. The taste is a lot different as a result, and so is the density. A cake made with brown sugar when the recipe called for white, for instance, will often turn out to be very heavy, and may not rise properly.

Can I Substitute Powdered Sugar for Granulated Sugar?

Typically, powdered sugar is not a suitable substitute for granulated sugar. Powdered sugar goes by several different names including confectioner’s sugar or icing sugar. Powdered sugar is granulated sugar that has been refined to a powder and mixed with cornstarch. Because of powdered sugar’s fine texture and the presence of cornstarch in powdered sugar, it can react unpredictably when cooked. It does not make a suitable substitute for granulated sugar in most cases.

How to Make Glaze with Granulated Sugar

Sugar glazes are used to top cakes, muffins, and loaves of sweetbread. Sugar glaze is usually a clear glaze that adds a little something extra to desserts and sweetbreads. If you’re interested in using granulated sugar to make a glaze, it is possible. First, you will need to decide if you want to make a basic glaze or a glaze flavored with lemon, rosemary, or any other of your favorite flavors. To make a basic glaze, you will need to combine one part sugar with two parts water or milk.

Combine the sugar and water or milk over low heat and continually stir. The sugar crystals will eventually break down to form a smooth glaze. If you would rather add a little flavor, you can add a splash of vanilla extract, banana or coconut extract, or even melted butter. Whatever your flavor preferences, start out with a small bit of extract first and then adjust to your tastes. The glaze will cool quickly so it’s best to add it to your desserts soon after the crystals have broken down. Handle sugar glaze with extreme care.

Granulated Sugar Health Information

Granulated sugar is what is known as a simple carbohydrate, which basically means that it is a “quick energy” source that the body converts to glucose relatively soon after digestion. Most health experts advise people to maintain a balance between simple carbs and more complex high-protein foods that take longer to break down. When the body takes in more sugar than it needs, it often stores the excess in fat cells.

Another possible downside to granulated or refined sugar is its lack of nutrients. Most foods that are highly processed contain very little in the way of vitamins and minerals, and sugar is no exception. It is often very high in calories without providing much nutritive value. Most medical professionals recommend consuming sugar in any form “sparingly,” which means that ideally it should be more of a rare treat than a dietary staple. Excessive sugar intake has been linked to health problems like type-2 diabetes and obesity.

Is Granulated Sugar Vegan?

While granulated sugar comes from sugar beets or sugar cane, the refining process for granulated sugar uses bone char to achieve the white color. Because of the use of bone char, most refined sugars are not vegan-friendly. Some sugar manufacturers are certified vegan, but you will need to check the company’s website or PETA’s website to be sure. To be safe, you can always sweeten your foods with maple syrup or agave nectar instead.

Whether you’re using sweetener in a cake recipe or your coffee, there are many varieties of sweeteners. While granulated sugar is possibly the most widely known form of sugar, it is only one option of many.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By julies — On Nov 02, 2012

My horses love to eat sugar cubes, which is basically granulated sugar. Isn't it interesting that they like something sweet just like we do. If they know I have a sugar cube in my hand, they will come right over to me and enjoy this as a treat.

The sugar probably isn't any better for them than it is me, but I don't think a small amount like this will hurt them. I have been trying to replace some of my granulated sugar with raw sugar since it is a little bit healthier.

I don't really notice a difference in the taste, but do find that it costs more. Because there is less processing, you might think it would be cheaper, but that is the opposite of what I have found.

By SarahSon — On Nov 01, 2012

Even if your granulated sugar has clumps, it will still taste OK and is safe to use. There are several ways to break up the clumps. If they are small I just use a fork or spoon to break them up. If the clumps in your sugar are big or really hard, just put them in a blender or food processor and they will quickly get rid of them.

By John57 — On Nov 01, 2012

My kids love to sprinkle on colored granulated sugar when we make sugar cookies. You can buy this in bottles in the baking aisle, and there are usually several colors to choose from, including red and green.

This can really make a batch of sugar cookies look festive. The granulated sugar adds a little bit of extra sweetness while making the cookies visually appealing too. I don't think cookies really need to look pretty in order for them to taste good, but they always look nice when arranged on a tray or plate -- especially when taking to a party.

By myharley — On Oct 31, 2012

@anon156543 -- I like to use honey as a substitute for granulated sugar whenever possible. Honey is sweeter than sugar, so a little bit goes a long way. If using honey to replace sugar in baking, you have to make a few adjustments in the recipe, but I think this is worth it. Honey is better for you than granulated sugar and still gives you the sweet taste you are looking for.

By OeKc05 — On Oct 18, 2012

I like using granulated sugar instead of frosting on cookies. I buy the coarse kind, and I use food coloring to make it more appealing.

I have sprinkled red and green granulated sugar on top of Christmas cookies, and I love the crunchy texture it gives them. It's much nicer than eating a plain sugar cookie.

By lighth0se33 — On Oct 17, 2012

@kylee07drg – There are things you can put in your granulated cane sugar container to prevent lumps. Rice, crackers, and bread all will work.

If you put a slice of bread in there, it will absorb the moisture. However, you have to check the bread now and then to make sure that it isn't growing any mold.

You can put crackers at the bottom, because they keep longer. You can also put some white rice in a mesh bag and stick it in the bottom of the container.

By kylee07drg — On Oct 16, 2012

I use pure granulated sugar when baking cookies, cakes, and just about anything that calls for sugar. It's sweeter than brown sugar, and I don't think that a direct substitution would work.

I have noticed lumps forming, even though I store the sugar in a cabinet inside an airtight plastic container. The lumps can be broken up with my fingers, so they are not a huge concern.

However, I can't just dip out a cup of sugar and just dump it in the bowl of ingredients. I have to sift through it and make sure all the lumps are broken up first.

By StarJo — On Oct 15, 2012

@smartypants4 – Raw granulated sugar is a great regular granulated sugar replacement. I discovered this when I used some to sweeten my coffee.

My husband convinced me to try some, because he was certain it would be better for our health than processed sugar. I was skeptical, but after one sip of the coffee, I was hooked. I love the combination of the molasses flavor with the richness of the coffee.

I add a little less raw sugar when I'm using a sweetened creamer. However, this sugar seems to enhance every type of creamer I've tried.

By anon156543 — On Feb 27, 2011

Honey is a better more natural sweetener than sugar. You can replace it in almost every recipe. give it a try sometime.

By anon124189 — On Nov 04, 2010

i usually get granulated sugar at most stores i go to for baking.

By smartypants4 — On May 31, 2010

I usually try to just buy raw sugar and avoid refined versions. The raw sugar tastes better, too.

By ivanka — On Feb 23, 2010

A food that we have in abundance, and can not conceive being without, however, it should be used sparingly.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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