A question I am often asked! Sucanat (or Rapadura) is dried, unrefined cane juice. As you can see, looking into my jar of Sucanat, it is granular, not crystalized.
The primary benefit to Sucanat is that it is unrefined. This means that it still possesses trace minerals and is nearly in its natural form. Thus your body will metabolize it slightly slower, not causing as quite a sharp spike as white sugar does, and you will actually derive some small nutritional benefit from consuming it. It's not totally empty calories.
White sugar is cane juice that has been separated and stripped (and bleached) to pull just the concentrated sugar out. Thus it is highly concentrated and has absolutely no nutritional benefit (and many would argue quite a few harmful qualities when consumed regularly).
From what I have read on the subject, raw sugar/turbinado sugar/organic sugar/etc.--those off-white or light brown sugar crystals--are less processed than white sugar, but when all is said and done, there is not much difference between these raw sugars and white sugar. You will be better off choosing sucanat over raw sugars.
All that said, let's remember we're still talking about sugar. Sucanat is still a sugar, and sugar is sugar is sugar! Sucanat is simply sugar very near to its "whole food" form. It is a better alternative to white sugar, less stressful to our bodies, and provides a tiny amount of nutrition. However, I am not promoting the wide-spread, frequent use of Sucanat. From everything I have read and continue to read, it seems wise to keep our sugar-intake (even Sucanat, honey and maple syrup) to a minimum on a regular basis.
In terms of sourcing Sucanat, a co-op is probably your best bet, as you can typically order it in bulk. Small bags of Sucanat and Rapadura in the grocery stores normally cost a fortune. Through my co-op I buy organic Sucanat in 15 lb. increments at $2.19 per pound. Those 15 lbs. normally last us 6-8 months. (That's a good read on how much sugar we consume, if you're curious.)
As far as the importance of buying organic Sucanat or regular Sucanat, I buy organic because sugar cane is typically a heavily (pesticide) sprayed crop. However, if you can find a fair trade Sucanat, that should be a good product, as fair trade products are typically grown in eco-conscious, sustainable ways.
A few baking tips:
Generally, Sucanat can be added in a 1:1 ratio in place of white sugar to recipes, which is a benefit for an unrefined sweetener as honey and maple syrup are trickier to substitute due to their liquid state. Some sources will recommend using slightly more Sucanat, often 1 1/3cup of Sucanat to replace 1 cup of sugar, because Sucanat, being less refined, is a bit less sweet. I normally just sub 1:1.
You need to keep in mind that using Sucanat is like using brown sugar, so if you are trying to make a white sugar cookie and you use Sucanat, it will come out like a brown sugar cookie. This rarely becomes causes a problem for us since we don't eat a lot of desserts and there aren't a whole lot of recipes where this will really become an issue. However, if it is an issue, consider using organic sugar or palm sugar, as the difference between using organic or palm sugar vs. white sugar in the final product will be minimal, while you will have still chosen at least a slightly better option.
Sucanat works wonderfully in puddings, ice creams, cakes (very sweet and not-so-sweet), cinnamon rolls, pies, shortcakes, muffins, cookies and even in savory recipes where you might need a bit of sweet (like this yummy dish of carrots and bacon!). When making cookies, you have to be a bit more careful. When you cream the butter and sugar, you really have to beat that Sucanat and butter together longer. You might notice a slight difference in texture with cookies. For us it has not been an issue, but everyone needs to find what works for them.
If you want to learn how to use Sucanat and other unrefined sweeteners (honey, maple syrup, palm sugar) in your baking, here are two cookbooks to help you: Naturally Sweetened Treats and Whole Foods for the Everyday Cook.
* If you liked this post, you may also enjoy reading:
What Does A Whole Foods Diet Look Like For Us?
Whole Foods for the Everyday Cook - a simple, whole foods cookbook
My Annual Order of a Quarter Cow
A Plethora of Vegetables!
Sugar & Vegetables - first steps toward a healthier diet
Doing A Good Thing Some of the Time Is Still Good - eat healthier as you're able
We Can't Do Everything - make changes in your diet one step at a time