Sugar as a superfood

Sugar as a superfood
Photo by Haifsa Rafique / Unsplash

Notes from Rujuta Divekar's book - Indian Superfoods


Cane derived Sugar is a superfood. It's unjustly vilified in the west and that's having a damaging effect in Indian diets.

History of Sugar use in India

There are references to crystalline sugar from the Gupta period (320–550 ce) and even earlier to sugar mills in Buddhist texts. These are some of the earliest evidence of sugar use in the world.
Charaka used sugar to cure digestion-related ailments, improve complexion and even increase sperm production. The Arthashastra describes how sugar can be used to increase the strength and vigour of elephants. Sugar was traditionally used in India without many documented harmful effects.

How Sugar got westernised

The use of sugar spread to western civilisations and became a huge factor in colonisation. The West changed the way they were eating following the two world wars. Due to rapid and forced industrialisation, women also had to step out to work. There was less time to cook. Sugar made way for beet sugar and HFCS, or high fructose corn syrup. They were easy to procure, easy to handle and, most important, cheaper.
What you get as sugar in the West is mostly beet sugar. A lot of beet sugar is derived from the GMO variety. HFCS is a chemically derived form of sugar that comes from corn. The US has hefty taxes on sugar but big subsidies for corn making HFCS very profitable for the food industry.

Why is sugar vilified?

A lot of the press, reports and research that you read about the evils of sugar include information about beet sugar and HFCS and not the cane-derived sugar used in India.
Guidelines for sugar have been changing too and dramatically at that. In 1999, fat was the major villain, sugar was okay. By 2015, we had swung around to arguing that fat was not responsible for obesity and obesity-related diseases, it was sugar.

Is sugar derived from sugar cane good?

We (in India) have been using cane-derived products for a very long time. They are even known to have good effects on our health -

  • Mishri mixed with spices is used as an effective aid against sinus and headaches.
  • Mishri mixed with clove is used for fighting tooth decay and even motion sickness.
  • Jaggery or Gud Effectively prevents cold, cough and flu.
  • Jaggery Ayurvedic medicine for improving haemoglobin levels and part of traditional pregnancy diets.
  • Kakvi or Molasses before Turning into Jaggery. Rich in minerals, can fight off the free radical effect of ageing on organs.
  • Sugar cane is used in Ayurvedic medicine for a deep cleanse and detox. That’s one reason why this is what you chew on or drink as medicine for jaundice. It actually helps in the recovery and rejuvenation of the liver
  • Stalks of sugar cane are chewed across India during the winters. It's good for teeth health.
  • Sugar cane and all its derivatives also have glycolic acid. It helps prevent skin damage of all kinds, from tanning to freckles to wrinkles.
  • Sugar cane provides fibre, minerals and even vitamin B
  • Sugar cane puts your body in a positive nitrogen balance. That is a state where the body is not sacrificing muscle to meet its energy demands and it could well be the reason why its juice has been used to break fasts right from the Buddha’s time
  • Folk medicine for kidney stones.
  • It’s a native version of an ‘alkaline’ diet. Known as a digestive aid, reduce acidity in the body.
  • Promotes a healthier, more diverse ecosystem of gut-friendly bacteria 4.

Do's and Dont's

  • Jaggery adds to the warmth of the body and is consumed as winter food along with ghee. It also takes away sharp odours from cooking. Sugar on the other hand is a coolant, to be used in summers even as a digestive aid. It enhances flavours in cooking. In chai or coffee, if you used jaggery instead of sugar, it would make it even hotter for the body and take away their distinct aromas.
  • Sugar is often mixed with ghee so that the rise in blood sugars is slower.