White sugar has gone through processing, which strips away the trace nutrients found in unrefined sugar. However, this doesn't necessarily make unrefined sugars a better choice. The amount of vitamins and minerals unrefined sugars contain is so small it isn't really significant, and these sugars have similar effects on the body and the same 4 calories per gram as refined sugars. Most sugars considered unrefined actually have gone through at least some processing before being sold.
Less Refined Sugars
For a truly raw sugar, you'd have to chew on sugar cane. This cane is crushed to produce juice, which is then heated to evaporate the liquid and leave behind crystals. For white sugar, these crystals are treated with chemicals to whiten them and remove impurities. Products sold as raw sugars have more flavor and a browner color than refined white sugar.
Natural brown sugar is white sugar that hasn't gone through a centrifuge to remove the molasses. Sucanat is a grainy brown sugar that is basically dried sugar cane juice, as is evaporated cane juice.
Demerara has a crunchy texture and molasses flavor. Turbinado is a more refined version of demerara sugar which still has large grains, retains a pale brown color and tastes a bit like honey. Both of these sugars are good for use in beverages and baked goods.
Panela, panocha, piloncillo, jaggery, muscovado and rapadura are all relatively unprocessed forms of brown sugar sometimes sold in bricks. These less refined sugars have 85 to 98 percent sucrose instead of the 99 percent sucrose found in white sugar.
Other Minimally Processed Sweeteners
Palm sugar and coconut sugar are made from the sap of the sugar palm and coconut palm trees, respectively. Rice syrup, barley malt, honey and maple syrup are also often considered unrefined sweeteners, but they do go through some processing. Honey, which is up to 50 percent sweeter than sugar, and, in the case of raw honey, almost completely unrefined, is heated to keep the yeast from fermenting and prevent crystallization. Maple sugar is made by dehydrating maple syrup and is twice as sweet as sugar. Date sugar, made by grinding up dehydrated dates, is another option, as is agave, which is made from cactus plants in Mexico and is about 25 percent sweeter than sugar.