With the festive season approaching, there’s no stopping the sugar rush. It wouldn’t be an Indian celebration without mithai, laddoos and assorted sweets making an appearance. Yet this sugar overload isn’t good for us.

There are innumerable studies linking excess sugar consumption to several lifestyle diseases, including diabetes and obesity. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) came up with draft guidelines recommending that daily sugar intake be halved, from 10% of total calorie intake to 5%.

Indians, however, are consuming more sugar than ever before. At the 2012 FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) International Sugar Conference, it emerged that in the past 50 years sugar consumption in India had increased from 5% of global sugar production to 13%.

It may be time to focus on a healthier alternative to processed sugar—jaggery. “Jaggery is not only a tastier alternative to processed white sugar, it’s also a rich, natural source of various vitamins and minerals," says Bangalore-based Megha Deokule, owner of i2cook, an online organic store, who is on a mission to promote sugar alternatives such as jaggery (including liquid jaggery) and coconut sugar. “Jaggery is a good source of energy and is used in school-lunch programmes," adds Mumbai-based Manisha Talim, a diabetologist affiliated to Breach Candy hospital and Shushrusha Hospital.

In his seminal work, On Food And Cooking: The Science And Lore Of The Kitchen, Harold
McGee talks about jaggery’s “distinctive, winey aroma that contributes to the flavour of Indian, Thai, Burmese and other South Asian and African cuisines". This characteristic taste of jaggery, coupled with its deep colour, imparts a richly decadent flavour to many Indian sweets—a flavour that is impossible to replicate using sugar.

India has had an ancient tradition of making this unrefined natural sugar from both sugar cane and the date palm tree. Jaggery made from sugar-cane juice is variously called gud (Hindi), gul (Marathi), bellam (Telugu) and vellam (Tamil). Jaggery made from the sap of date palm, predominantly used in Bengali cuisine, is called khejur gur or nolen gur.

According to a 2013 report by the Indian Sugar Mills Association, India is the world’s top producer of jaggery, accounting for 58% of the total production. Thirty-two per cent of the sugar cane produced in the country goes towards manufacturing jaggery. More than 50% of Indian jaggery is produced in Uttar Pradesh, followed by Maharashtra, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Compared to sugar, jaggery requires lower capital investment in production and is manufactured at individual units at the farmer level itself. Sugar-cane juice is extracted by crushing the canes in three-roller crushers. The extracted juice is then rested for an hour to allow heavy particles and impurities to settle to the bottom. The semi-clear juice is then transferred to a large boiling pan, which is usually fired using bagasse—the remainder after extraction of sugar-cane juice. The juice is boiled for a couple of hours and stirred slowly and intermittently. Lime (calcium hydroxide) is added to clarify the juice further. The scum that is formed is periodically removed. The hot, thick sugar-cane syrup is then transferred to a large, shallow pit for cooling. It’s then poured into moulds of varying sizes and allowed to solidify. Most of the jaggery produced is in solid form. Some amount of liquid jaggery—known as kakvi in Marathi—is also produced. It is used as a sweetener in rural Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Jaggery contains about 50% sucrose, 20% invert sugars such as glucose and fructose, about 20% moisture and 10% insoluble matter such as
bagasse. Since it is slightly more complex than sugar, it is digested slowly and therefore releases energy in a gradual manner. Its colour can vary from light to dark brown, depending upon the sugar content of the cane juice or sap, and the extent of boiling.

According to the National Institute of Nutrition, 100g of jaggery contains 0.4g protein, 0.1g fat, 95g carbohydrate, 80mg calcium, 40mg phosphorus, 11.4mg iron and 168 microgram of carotene. In comparison, 100g sugar has less calcium and no iron, carotene, thiamin, riboflavin or niacin.

Sugar is processed using several harsh chemicals such as sulphur dioxide and phosphoric acid, not to mention bleaching agents, all of which essentially strip off the vitamins and minerals, leaving just “empty calories". Jaggery, on the other hand, is known as medicinal sugar, and owing to its unrefined nature it’s considered to be a healthier alternative.

There are references to the use of jaggery in Ayurveda texts that are more than 2,500 years old, notably the scriptures of Sushrata Samhita. “Due to its iron content, jaggery is useful in
improving haemoglobin and in iron-deficiency anaemia," says Dr Talim. It is known to be a good remedy for acidity and constipation, and has also been used to treat lung and throat infections.

A 1994 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showed that jaggery can actually offset some of the damage caused by silicosis, a lung disease common among industrial workers. “Of course more research is required to study the beneficial effects of jaggery, but it is certainly preferable to sugar due to its mineral content," says Anoop Misra, chairman, Fortis-C-Doc Centre of Excellence for Diabetes, Metabolic Diseases, and Endocrinology, New Delhi.

In terms of calories, however, the two are comparable. “About 100g of jaggery delivers 383 kcal of energy while an equal amount of sugar releases 398 kcal," says Dr Talim.

Jaggery should, therefore, be consumed in moderation.​In fact, WHO’s guidelines on sugar should apply to jaggery as well—it is, after all, a form of sugar, albeit a slightly healthier one. “Jaggery is to be avoided by persons with diabetes, as it will increase blood sugar levels, just as sugar or honey does," warns Dr Talim.

“Total intake of sugars, including jaggery, should not be more than 15g per day in the diet of healthy individuals," says Dr Misra.

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