A jar of honey next to some bread or toast

What can I do with unrefined sugars?

24 May 2023

We all need to reduce the amount of sugar we’re eating, so how can products like coconut sugar, agave syrup and molasses help?

As the amount of sugar we eat steadily increases, more and more research is uncovering just how bad an excess of sugar can be for our health. Many people are turning to unrefined sugars in their cooking – these have more nutrients than simple, white sugar; they are less processed and their richer flavours can make for a tastier dish – meaning you don’t need so much sweetening.

Different sugars also have a different scientific make-up. Ordinary table sugar is known as ‘sucrose’, whereas unrefined sugars can also include different types of sugars, such as glucose and fructose. Fructose is a particularly sweet sugar – which should sound like good news: if it’s sweeter, you won’t need so much. However, fructose is not exactly a healthy choice, as limited studies have linked it to fatty arteries and increased cholesterol.

The latest government advice is to limit our intake of added sugars to less than five per cent of our daily calories (it’s easier to visualise as around seven sugar cubes). You don’t need to think about the naturally occurring sugars in fruit and veg, dairy and so on – but you should be cutting down on syrups, honey and fruit juice, as well as sugar that you add while cooking, or sugars in ready-made foods (sauces, microwave meals, drinks, cakes and so on).

This is where unrefined sugars can be useful. Generally, the darker the colour, the stronger the flavour – so add molasses instead of granulated sugar when you’re making your own sauces or marinades and you’ll have a tastier dish with a lower sugar content. And if you opt for agave nectar or honey, these are sweeter than sugar, so you can reduce the amount you’re adding. Try these recipes, or check out our Free From Refined Sugars section.

Honey tea bread

Good for: a dairy-free treat that’s low in fat
Makes: one 900g (2lb) loaf


  • 225g raisins *

  • 75g set honey *

  • 300ml freshly made strong black tea

  • 2 eggs, size 3, lightly beaten

  • 275g wholewheat flour *

  • ½ tsp ground mixed spice *

  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • Place the raisins in a bowl. Stir the honey into the tea and pour this over the raisins. Leave to soak for 2 hours.
* Available at Holland & Barrett


Step 1
Stir the eggs into the raisin mixture. Heat oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4. Mix the flour with the spice and baking powder then mix these dry ingredients into the raisin mixture.

Step 2
Transfer to a greased 900g (2lb) loaf tin and bake for about 1 hour 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack and serve in slices.

Recipe courtesy of The Honey Association.

Home-made chipotle BBQ sauce

Good for: a super-tasty condiment
Makes: 1 jar


  • 1 tbsp olive oil

  • ½ small onion, finely chopped

  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

  • 100ml cider vinegar *

  • 90ml date syrup *

  • tsp mustard powder

  • tsp smoked paprika *

  • 2 tsp yeast extract *

  • 2 tsp chipotle paste

  • 2 tbsp tomato purée

  • 350ml passata

  • 75ml molasses *

  • 70g unrefined dark brown sugar
* Available at Holland & Barrett


Step 1
Heat the oil in a small saucepan and gently cook the onion and garlic for 4-5 minutes until soft.

Step 2
Add all the other ingredients and bring to a simmer while stirring. Simmer for 10 minutes until the sugar had dissolved and the sauce has become thick. Use straight away or store in the fridge.

Recipe courtesy of Meridian Foods

Light blueberry cheesecake

Good for: a variety of nutrients
Serves: 4

For the base:

For the filling:

  • 150g light cream cheese

  • 100g Greek yoghurt

  • 30g agave nectar *

  • 100g fresh blueberries

For the blueberry sauce:

* Available at Holland & Barrett


Step 1
Blitz the nuts in a food processor until they’re a fine crumb. Combine with the coconut oil and agave nectar, then press the mixture into ramekins. Chill in the fridge for 20 minutes.

Step 2
Place the cream cheese, yoghurt and agave nectar in a large bowl and mix with a hand whisk until smooth. Fold in the blueberries and spoon onto the nut base in the ramekins. Chill in the fridge for 2 hours.

Step 3
Warm the blueberries, agave and water in a small pan over a gentle heat for around 10 minutes, until the blueberries release their juice. Add the lemon juice.

Step 4
Pour some of the blueberry juice over the cheesecakes just before serving.

Recipe courtesy of The Groovy Food Company

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This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy, the Holland & Barrett magazine. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.

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