Processed sugar is sugar which has been refined so that it has a regular texture and flavor. A classic example of processed sugar is white sugar, a sugar product which is widely sold all over the world. This form of sugar is widely used in baking and sweetening because it behaves in a predictable manner, and it is easy to control. The alternative is unprocessed sugar, or sugar alternatives like agave, honey, and stevia.
This type of sugar is sometimes referred to as “refined sugar,” referencing the fact that it is prepared in a refinery. Processing sugar starts with pressing the cane or beets to extract the naturally sweet liquid inside, and allowing that liquid to dry into a loose crumble. The crumble is washed and dried to extract impurities and pull out the molasses, resulting in white sugar. Molasses can be added back in to make light and dark brown sugar, or the sugar can be sold in the pure white form.
Some sugar refineries market “unprocessed” or “minimally refined” sugar, sugar which is not taken through every step of the refining process. This type of sugar has more impurities and it is harder to work with, but it also has more vitamins and minerals than refined sugar. Classically, this sugar is made from the first pressing of the sugar cane, and it may be lightly washed and allowed to air dry to form crystals. This type of sugar is sometimes referred to as “natural” in an attempt to appeal to consumers who seek out natural products.
Some people believe that unprocessed sugar is healthier, because it contains more of the vitamins and minerals which are naturally present in the sugar. High consumption of sugar in general does carry the increased risk of tooth decay, the development of diabetes, and other health problems, and processed sugar in particular is heavily implicated in studies on the health effects of sugar.
The risks of processed sugar are often blared across the covers of health magazines, but, in fact, all sugars have similar potentially deleterious health effects, especially when combined with fats and heavily milled grains in “energy dense” foods which have a high calorie content, and minimal nutritional value. The issue with processed sugar in particular is that it is a highly concentrated form of sugar with little nutritional value beyond its calories, in contrast with types of sugar which include impurities, or sugars which are naturally embedded in things like fruit, delivering fiber and nutrition along with a sweet treat.