Sugar: Origin and History
To most people, sugar is understood to be pure, bleached sucrose–the white granular sweetener sold in one pound bags in the supermarket. However, to the scientist, “sugar” includes a variety of carbohydrates including glucose, fructose, galactose, lactose, ribose, maltose–and sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide (i.e. composed of two sugars), glucose and fructose. The fructose is eventually converted during digestion into glucose, so sucrose in effect provides the body with pure glucose. This means it provides the body with essentially pure energy: one teaspoon (four grams) of table sugar is equivalent to 16 Calories (kcal) and little else.
Of course all sugars, including sucrose, occur naturally throughout the plant kingdom and have been consumed by humans for millennia as food. Examples of the sucrose content (g/100g) of some common foods listed below may surprise you:
Sucrose Content Of Selected Raw Foods
Dried fig, 9.9
The plant source of sugar is Saccharum officinarum, a member of the grass family which is believed to have originally evolved in New Guinea. This plant still grows throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of Earth and is known as “sugarcane”. Mankind has had a long relationship with sugarcane. Although man’s use of honey predates it, sugarcane was in use in India before 400 B.C. Alexander the Great wrote about a grass which produced honey without the presence of bees. Columbus attempted to grow sugarcane in the New World but his transplants were unsuccessful. However other explorers who followed cultivated sugarcane in the West Indies, Brazil, and Mexico. Today sugarcane also grows in four U.S. states: Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Hawaii.
The per capita consumption of refined sugar in the United States is often wrongly quoted as being 150 pounds per year. Actually, refined sugar consumption in the U.S. has been dropping since the late 1970’s and was never at that high level. In 1990, the per capita consumption was approximately 65 pounds annually. However, corn sugar and syrup have replaced sugar in many commercial products and its per capita annual consumption in the U.S. is at approximately 75 pounds. Thus, when we consider both refined sugar and corn sugar products together we get a number which approximates 140 pounds annually per capita.
Sugar In Human Disease:
It has become part of our shared knowledge that “sugar is bad for you”. This may or may not be true and certainly is today an unproved assumption, albeit with some merit. For instance, some studies have claimed that sugar intake is related to the development of coronary artery disease, diabetes mellitus, obesity, and dental caries. As of 2002, no direct causative role of sugar in coronary artery disease or diabetes has ever been established. As for obesity and overweight, remember that sugar is essentially pure energy–16 kcal per teaspoon. According to the first law of thermodymanics, energy cannot be destroyed. Anytime the amount of energy flowing into our physiology exceeds the amount flowing out, the remainder is converted into triglycerides and stored as fat. Excess energy in the form of carbohydrates, proteins and fats all contribute to this deposition of fat. No evidence exists that implicates any specific food or nutrient as contributing more excess energy than any other. The problem is excess intake in general. In the case of dental caries, we do see some indirect evidence to implicate sugar. Caries (“cavities”) are caused by a combination of factors including structural resistance of the teeth, genetic disposition, oral hygeine, oral microflora, salivary flow, and diet. Nevertheless, in countries where sugar consumption is low (i.e. Ethiopia) dental caries is also low, while in countires where consumption is high (i.e. Australia) so is the incidence of caries. But it is the manner of sugar intake which seems to be important. Frequent exposure to sticky forms of sugar between meals results in high incidence of dental caries, while sugar taken with meals followed by rinsing and/or brushing does not result in increased incidence.
The true danger of sugar seems to be that, due to its overwhelming appeal to the human taste buds, we eat it in excess–often displacing other more nutritious foods from the diet. However, at the current time, no specific disease can be associated with its use, especially if taken in moderation.
Jaggery: A Healthy Choice
Although not firmly associated with disease, the greatest potential threat of white sugar stems from the processing it undergoes. Initially, the sugarcane plants are washed, shredded, crushed, and rolled to extract the cane juice. Nothing particularly bad happening here so far. In fact, the fibrous residual is often recycled as fuel for the mill furnaces. However, the cane juice is then “clarified” by the addition of lime. After evaporation and centrifugation, it is then further refined though the addition of sulphur dioxide, phosphoric acid, and decolorizers. These processes remove all the phytonutrients, including the vitamins and minerals, and leave only the empty calories behind for us to put in our tea, coffee, and recipes.
Fortunately, not all forms of sugarcane products are nutritional wastelands. For centuries, jaggery has been used throughout India as a healthy sweetener. Jaggery actually comes from the sap of either the sugarcane plant we’ve been discussing or from several species of sugar palm trees. To convert the sap into jaggery, simple evaporation or crude centrifugation is the only process. No chemicals or bleaches are added. It is then simply poured into moulds to form small cakes.
Jaggery, also known as gur, has a mineral content of approximately 60 times that of refined white sugar. One teaspoon of jaggery contains approximately 4-5 mg calcium, 2-3 mg phosphorus, 8 mg magnesium, 48 mg potassium, 0.5 mg iron, as well as trace amounts of zinc, copper, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. The corresponding values for white sugar are all essentially zero. Jaggery is grainy and light brown in color with a flavor which is truly superior to white sugar; it tastes like a combination between molasses, maple syrup, and brown sugar. It can definitely be used exactly like sugar in drinks or recipes which call for sugar. You will probably need to use about 25-50% more jaggery than sugar to achieve the same degree of sweetness. Remember, even jaggery must be used in moderation.