Colombian PanelaChef Rick HomeChancaca is raw, unrefined, non-centrifugal cane sugar with a high molasses content. Although commonly used in Latin America (where it may also be called raspadura, panela or piloncillo), the Philippines (where it is known as muscovado sugar, from the Spanish mascabado, meaning unrefined) and South Asia (where it is known as gur, jaggery, and khandsari), you may have a hard time finding this product in the U.S., where the preferred sweeteners are the refined (white) sugars and syrup made from corn.

Cooks prefer refined white sugar, which imparts no flavor except sweetness, and doesn't change the color of icings and frostings. Food producers prefer corn syrup, which is cheaper than cane sugar (in the U.S., which protects the Hawaiian sugar cane industry with high tariffs). You will find corn syrup in virtually any processed packaged food from salad dressings to breakfast cereals to soft drinks to pasta sauces to pancake syrups to ketchup to baked goods to . . . well, just about anything sold in a supermarket.

So what? Sugar is sugar, right? Well, no.

"Unrefined" sugar is darker in color than "refined" sugar because it contains what sugar producers call "impurities." It turns out that these so-called impurities are essential minerals such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, copper, and iron, as well as small amounts of fluorine and selenium. So "refined" sugar has zero nutritional value (and promotes obesity, type II diabetes, cholesterol production in the liver, and tooth decay) while "unrefined" sugar has significant nutritional value and actually helps prevent the diseases mentioned (this is true -- look it up). Energy is an added bonus.

If you've ever tried chancaca syrup, you will find that corn syrup (the primary ingredient in pancake syrup) tastes like cough syrup in comparison. The flavor of chancaca (especially with a citrus rind) is far superior, and sweet without being sticky, with a noticeable flavor of caramel. Try turbinado sugar in place of white sugar in your tea or coffee, add a lemon rind, and you'll get the idea.

In the Old South, cooks once used molasses and treacle as a sweetener. With prosperity, these customs have begun to disappear. But the rest of the world still consumes more unrefined sugar than refined, for reasons of cost, tradition, and flavor. In the U.S., we can easily find molasses and brown sugar, but chancaca may be hard to find except in health food stores as muscovado sugar or Barbados sugar. Yet these raw products (probably imported from Africa or the Caribbean) will cost much more than the processed, refined products. Why does it cost more to leave the natural goodness in? You tell me. And when you do, you can also find out why rye and whole wheat flour costs more than bleached flour.