Molasses, or black treacle, is a sweet syrup produced as a by-product of refining sugar cane or sugar beets into sugar. It has a sweet, smoky caramel flavor, and is commonly used as a sweetener and a flavoring. It is also one of the primary ingredients used for distilling rum.
Sugar is extracted from cane or beets by boiling them down until the sugar crystallises and can be removed, leaving behind a syrupy liquid known as molasses. In most cases this process is repeated three times to extract as much sugar as possible, and molasses can vary in sweetness and colour depending on how thoroughly their sugars have been extracted.
There are three main types of molasses, which correspond to how many times the pulp has undergone the boiling process. Light molasses is left after the first extraction. The sweetest variety of molasses, and the lightest in colour, it is often used on pancakes or waffles. Medium or dark molasses is left after the second extraction. Thicker and darker than light molasses, it has a stronger, less sweet flavour, and is typically used to make gingerbread. Blackstrap molasses, left after the third extraction, has the strongest flavour, darkest colour and thickest consistency of all.
Benefits and Side Effects
Molasses contains several vitamins and minerals which may provide certain health benefits, but as it is also high in sugar, it should be enjoyed in moderation only. Nutrient levels vary according to the level of extraction, with light molasses being higher in vitamins and minerals, but also having higher levels of sugar.
Molasses provides a source of iron, which can help prevent anaemia and is important for healthy bones. It also contains several other nutrients that are good for your bones, including selenium and copper, as well as calcium, which can help prevent osteoporosis.
Molasses also contains potassium, which promotes healthy blood pressure and helps maintain heart health. Animal studies have shown that molasses can help increase LDL, or ‘good’ cholesterol, although there is no evidence so far that this also works in humans.
Despite its nutritional benefits, however, molasses is still a high-sugar food, and eating too much of it can cause obesity, heart problems and elevated blood sugar. The nutrients found in molasses are all available from healthier sources, so eating more molasses for its nutritional value is not recommended. That said, healthy adults who enjoy sweet things as an occasional treat may wish to use molasses as a more nutritious alternative to the sugar they already eat.
One tablespoon (20g) of blackstrap molasses contains the following:
Fibre: less than 1g
The same amount also contains the following amounts of your daily values (DV) of each nutrient:
vitamin B-6: 8%
Comparison to other Sweeteners
If you’re looking for something to add a touch of sweetness to your cooking, there are plenty of different natural sweeteners to choose from. To find out if molasses is the right sweetener for you, take a look at how it compares to some other popular choices.
As we have seen, molasses has a higher nutrient content than sugar, and this is particularly the case for white sugar. Brown sugar actually has some of the molasses added back in for extra flavour, which means it also contains some additional nutrients.
However, both brown sugar and molasses are still forms of sugar, and carry the same health risks as white sugar. Because of this, they should be enjoyed in moderation only, which means that any additional nutrients will only be in very small amounts.
In terms of taste, molasses has a stronger, smokier flavour than sugar. It is often used to add a rich, burnt caramel flavour and a dark brown colouring to food.
The main difference between honey and molasses is the flavour. The flavour, colour and consistency of honey can alter according to which species of flower was visited by the bees, but in general honey has a lighter, more floral taste, compared to the warm smokiness of molasses. If you have a recipe that calls for honey, you might substitute light molasses, but anything stronger will alter the flavour quite significantly.
Maple syrup is made from the sap of the maple tree, which is boiled to make a thick, sweet syrup. Like molasses, it is dark in colour and has some caramel in its flavour profile. The caramel flavour is far more subtle in maple syrup, however, which is much sweeter than molasses, with hints of vanilla and nuttiness.
Maple syrup is also a natural source of certain vitamins and minerals, providing nutritionally significant amounts of manganese and zinc, as well as potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, and riboflavin. Despite this, molasses is still the more nutritious of the two, with higher levels of B vitamins, in particular.
Date syrup is made by boiling medjool dates down into a syrupy, sugar-rich liquid, and has a similar caramel flavour to molasses, without the hint of bitterness found in blackstrap. It is a natural source of magnesium, potassium, calcium, B vitamins and phosphorus, and as it is also high in fibre, it helps your body to digest the sugars more slowly, creating less of a spike in blood sugar. It is important to remember that date syrup is still a type of sugar, however, and even ‘healthy’ sugars should be enjoyed in moderation
Coconut sugar comes from blossoms of the coconut tree, and is closer to white sugar in flavour. It is a good source of potassium and electrolytes, but is fairly heavily processed, making it less nutritious than molasses. Like date syrup, coconut sugar contains fibre, which helps slow the body’s absorption of glucose and avoid spikes in blood sugar.
Recipes with Molasses
If you want to try molasses for yourself, here are some of our favourite recipes.
The smoky-sweet flavour of molasses was made for barbecue, and this recipe for tempeh kebabs with homemade barbecue sauce from Food 52 showcases it at its best. The perfect tangy, sweet, ever-so-slightly hot sauce for a vegan-friendly kebab that’s bursting with flavour.
Give a humble pot of baked beans the gourmet treatment using a spoonful of molasses and some rich, salty bacon with this recipe for New England baked beans, from A Taste of Home.
Try something a little different with Food 52’s recipe for yoghurt bread with molasses, a deliciously moist, slightly sweet bake that’s somewhere between a bread and a cake.
A real treat for anyone with a sweet tooth, these molasses-pecan sticky buns from A Taste of Home combine a little bit of everything good to make a soft, fluffy bun smothered in a gooey molasses, pecan and cinnamon topping.
If you love the flavour of molasses but prefer your sugar in crystal form, take a look at our article on rapadura sugar, an unrefined cane sugar made without removing the molasses.