No sweetener is perfect, but natural options such as raw sugar -- also called turbinado sugar -- and brown rice syrup are two popular choices. Raw sugar is sugar, plain and simple: a dry and roughly granular sugar with a golden-brown color derived from a light coating of molasses that has not been removed by processing. Brown rice syrup, however, is more complex. First, whole grain rice is subjected to an enzymatic reaction that breaks down the starches in the rice. The simpler sugars produced by that reaction fall away from the rice in a liquid, which is strained out and boiled down into a syrup that's about as thick as honey. Brown rice syrup and raw sugar are very different in nutritional content, taste and usefulness.
Raw sugar has crunchier grains than granulated sugar and a slight taste of molasses, but its level of sweetness is on par with its more refined cousin. The taste of brown rice syrup is decidedly less sweet than granulated sugar, with a nutty, almost grassy flavor that derives from its parent grain.
While raw sugar affects the body's insulin response in precisely the same way as granulated sugar, brown rice syrup does not. Since it's derived from the complex carbohydrates of a whole grain, it doesn’t impact the glycemic index in the same way as refined sugar, and the peaks and valleys of insulin production are less drastic.
Brown rice syrup has more calories, cup for cup, than raw sugar. While raw sugar clocks in at 720 calories per cup -- the same as white table sugar -- one cup of brown rice syrup delivers 1,200 calories.
Turbinado sugar works best as a topping for cookies and other baked goods, where its rustic texture can shine. Brown rice syrup, with its liquid stickiness and earthy taste, works best in the background of health-conscious baking recipes, holding together goodies such as homemade energy bars and whole grain muffins.
Substituting for White Granulated Sugar
Both raw sugar and brown rice syrup can substitute for white table sugar. Raw sugar is easy: it's a one-to-one substitution with no other considerations. To substitute brown rice syrup, however, the recipe must be somewhat modified. For best results, substitute one cup of sugar with 1¼ cups of syrup, reduce the liquid in the recipe by two tablespoons and lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
The net health benefits of brown rice syrup were called into question by a 2012 study performed by Brian Jackson, director of trace metal analysis at Dartmouth’s Department of Earth Science. Jackson's study discovered high levels of the carcinogen arsenic in foods containing the syrup. Apparently, rice plants draw arsenic from the soil because it behaves in much the same way as silica, a nutrient that rice needs in order to grow.