more than just a spoonful of sugar.

50 Shades of…

Brown sugar: oatmeal porridge is nothing without it, and it’s a dream when paired with dark chocolate. (These cookies are but one example.)

I suspect Mary Poppins would approve of using a little brown sugar to help the medicine go down – it’s fuss-free in flavour, yet decadent, and just a little bit wicked.

But not all brown sugar is created equal. Not even, I discovered a few weeks ago, different batches of the same brand. Have a look at this:

The darker one, on the right, was packed on 31 May 2012 and the one on the left, on 6 June 2012.

Once out of the packet, the difference in colour is even more startling:

Same brand, different batches.

And here they are compared to a sample of Chelsea brown sugar (on the far right):

The difference is astounding.

You may well argue that this is an example of getting what you pay for – as of today, 1 kilogram of Chelsea brown sugar has a regular retail price of $3.22 at Countdown, compared with $2.79 for Homebrand. I know supermarket brands are usually cheaper for a reason, but Countdown’s website claims that Homebrand products provide “reliable quality at everyday low prices”. In my view, the huge discrepancy between the two batches makes them anything but reliable.

I emailed Countdown through their website a month ago to ask why this had happened. I wanted to know whether this was just a manufacturing anomaly in one batch, or a conscious decision to make their brown sugar less, well, brown. On 24 July I received an email from a customer care representative saying my query had been forwarded to their “Private Label Team”. I have sent one follow-up email since then, but haven’t received a reply. The same anaemic-looking product was still on their shelves last weekend.

So what’s the likely cause of this sudden pallor? The colour and caramel flavour of brown sugar comes from the molasses that get added to refined, white sugar. The higher the molasses content, the darker and richer the final product. (It is not to be confused with the much darker muscovado sugar, which gets dried into crystals before refining.)

Presumably, adding more molasses increases the cost of production. So it makes sense that to sell your sugar more cheaply, you would reduce the amount of molasses.

I’ve never had a problem using Homebrand’s basic products (including flour and white sugar) for baking before. But their brown sugar is now so pale, it only bears a trace of that near-burnt caramel flavour I love so much. And I doubt Mary Poppins would approve of that.


(I suppose, if I were going to be really finnicky about quality control, I could make my own brown sugar…)


© thebakingof 2012



  1. Huh. This is curious and curiouser – please let us know what you find out. I’ve always been one for buying the budget versions of my baking basics (flour, sugar, butter, eggs – though free range eggs, of course), and splashing out on the flavourings – fancy chocolate, real vanilla, etc. Real vanilla in particular makes the most unbelievable difference to taste (as opposed to mostly-alcohol vanilla essence). But I’m very interested to hear more on the sugar thing – do they taste vastly different? And how do the different colours caramelise?

    P.S. Still loving this blog! C xx

    1. Oops, I neglected to mention the crucial taste factor! The lightest stuff tastes about as good as white sugar – sweet, but with only a faint hint of caramel. In contrast, the Chelsea sugar is much richer – like really dark caramel caught juuuust before it burns. I haven’t tried caramelising them, but I imagine the Homebrand sugar would be almost yellow, rather than golden.

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