Is superfood jaggery the healthiest sugar in the world?

On a trip late last year to Punjab in northern India, I saw what looked like clouds of smoke rising from small patches of land scattered along the road. The smell, on the other hand, was divine, the stuff that lazy childhood dreams are made of.

Closer examination revealed entire farming families carrying thick bundles of sugarcane which were juiced, then boiled, cleaned and stirred with giant ladles in huge cauldrons over log fires to form a thick, fluffy paste.

The viscous golden liquid was then poured into huge trays to further thicken and form clumps of what is widely considered the world’s healthiest form of sugar – jaggery, also known as gur and vellam.

bittersweet story

Jaggery has been used in many Indian (and some Asian and African) homes for centuries and has been used as a natural sweetener by Ayurveda practitioners for over 3,000 years.

Sugar is simply an empty calorie, while jaggery is rich in a number of essential nutrients.

Kavita Devgan, nutritionist and author

Legend has it that the physician Sushruta, also known as the “Father of Indian Surgeons”, around 700 BC, combined jaggery with sesame seeds as an antiseptic to treat his patients. Jaggery was rediscovered in the late 1600s in southern India by Portuguese colonizers, and it later spread to other parts of Southeast Asia, including Myanmar and Vietnam. , as well as in Africa.

“In India, jaggery is more than just an aroma, it is also an object of ritual importance, a sign of good news and a marker of the changing seasons,” says Sneha Mehta, a housewife from Ahmedabad. . “In Gujarati communities, for example, betrothal is commonly referred to as gol dhana to represent the gift of jaggery and coriander seeds that were traditionally distributed to guests.”

Jaggery is a natural sweetener and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.  Kalpana Sunder for The National

Preferences changed after 1857 during British colonial rule in India, which not only destroyed the jaggery industry but also promoted refined white sugar. However, the ingredient has found favor over the past few decades as consumers have become increasingly health conscious.

Currently, India produces over 70% of the world’s jaggery and over three million people make their living from this cottage industry.

Health Benefits of Jaggery

With its taste of rich caramel and spicy molasses, jaggery or unrefined cane sugar can be compared to Latin American panela and Portuguese muscovado.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has recognized dehydrated sugarcane juice and its products for their non-centrifuged nature, which means that the residual glucose, fructose and minerals found in jaggery have not been destroyed or contaminated by refining.

High iron and folate content makes it an excellent choice for pregnant and breastfeeding women

Anushruti RK, Founder, DivineTaste.com

“Sugar is simply an empty calorie, while jaggery is rich in a number of essential nutrients, making it a powerful food source,” says Kavita Devgan, Delhi-based nutritionist and author of Fix it with food and Ultimate Grandma Hacks. “It contains calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, manganese, sodium, zinc, copper, as well as vitamins A, B1, B2, B5, B6, C, D2 and E.

“Magnesium acts as a muscle relaxant, makes the nervous system more robust and helps fight fatigue, while potassium helps reduce fluid retention and reduce bloating.”

Jaggery is an active ingredient in many Ayurvedic medicines. For example, it is used with ginger and tulsi (holy basil) to treat coughs and colds in winter. Ayurveda recognizes it as a “sattvic” food due to its calming effect on the mind. Jaggery is also high in iron, can help increase hemoglobin levels, and has anti-inflammatory properties.

Anushruti RK, founder of DivineTaste.com, a platform that focuses on sattvic nourishment – ​​the Ayurvedic vegetarian diet of only fresh foods is believed to promote happiness, energy and clarity in addition to calmness – is another proponent of the ingredient. “It’s good for bone health, strengthens the lungs and boosts immunity,” she says.

“The high iron and folate content means it’s excellent for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and can also ease menstrual pain and ease symptoms of PMS.”

I add organic jaggery to my coffee or tea instead of sugar, because I prefer its earthy taste

Shilpa Rao, engineer

Food preservative and TV show host Rakesh Raghunathan was familiar with jaggery, which is used in many Indian cuisines, but it wasn’t until a trip to rural Tamil Nadu that he realized its benefits. for health. “It was the height of summer and I remember being given a piece of jaggery and a glass of hot water when I visited the farmers, only to learn that this customary ritual is followed as jaggery is a natural coolant for the body when mixed with water,” says Raghunathan.

A quota of jaggery is also given to workers in many mines, thermal power stations and cement factories in India so that they do not suffer from diseases such as tuberculosis, caused by particles in the lungs, as jaggery works as a natural cleanser.

Use, types and warnings

No wonder then that the ingredient is used in Indian, Thai, Burmese and other South Asian cuisines in both sweet and savory dishes. Jaggery can be used to balance spicy, salty and sour components, while its depth of flavor and taste makes it favorable for sweetening kheer, halwas, chikki and other Indian sweets.

“I add organic jaggery to my coffee or tea instead of sugar because I prefer its earthy taste,” says Shilpa Rao, an engineer from Delhi. “I use it in chutneys and sauces to balance flavors and to make healthier versions of Indian sweets.”

Jaggery is used to sweeten meals and desserts.  Kalpana Sunder for The National

The ingredient is an important part of harvest rituals in India, especially those that mark a new agricultural year. Some other preparations include: a sweet juice called paanakam, made with water, jaggery and peppercorns; a rice pudding called Pongal, made with lentils, jaggery, rice, ghee, cashews and raisins; and ladoos, made with sesame seeds or peanuts and jaggery.

RK says jaggery can even be consumed on its own. “In the absence of dessert, a few pieces of jaggery are enough to satisfy my sweet cravings.”

Jaggery can be made from sugarcane juice and palm sap, and each has a distinct taste and flavor. Palm jaggery is considered superior – medically and nutritionally. In West Bengal, a molasses-colored jaggery made from a date palm sap called nolen gur has a smoky taste and is only available in winter. In Sri Lanka, jaggery is usually made from the syrup of the kithul palm or coconut syrup.

Although the ingredient is a healthy sugar – because its preparation does not involve the use of preservatives or synthetic additives – it has a high glycemic index. “That’s why it should only be consumed up to 15 grams a day, and people with diabetes should avoid it because, refined or not, it’s sugar,” says Dharini Krishnan, a dietitian in Chennai.

Another caveat is that sugarcane production itself could be subject to pesticide and herbicide use, so organic jaggery, which is more golden than brown, is a better bet.

Updated: February 25, 2022, 6:02 p.m.

Rachel J. Bradford