Unprocessed sugars are sweet concentrates made by boiling natural juices, and they retain most of their minerals and nutrients. They can be made from various sweet juices such as sugarcane, palm, date, maple, etc. Most of these sugars have been eaten traditionally by rural communities all over the world, and are referred to as ‘crude, poor people’s sugar’. Luckily for the poor people, they get a lot of beneficial nutrients from these traditional products.
Raw cane sugar
Raw cane sugar is still eaten traditionally all over South Asia, South-east Asia and Latin America (where sugarcane grows abundantly). Latin Americans variously call it rapadura, panela or turbinado, while Colombians call it chancaca. In India it is known as gur, jaggery, or khandsari. In Europe and America it is treated as a specialty sugar and is called muscovado (from the Spanish word mascabado, meaning unrefined).
Whatever the name may be, basically this form of sugar is unrefined, non-centrifugal cane sugar with an extremely high mineral content, especially iron, magnesium and potassium.
Gur or Jaggery
In India gur or jaggery still forms the main sweetener for over 50 per cent of the population in villages. Even among the affluent classes, it is treated as a specialty sugar used to made particular sweets and confectionaries. Apart from sugar cane, gur can also be made from the sap of date, coconut and palmyra trees. Most of the best gurs never reach the urban markets and are sold in local bazaars and consumed quickly.
Gur is simply boiled and reduced (much like the sugaring off process of maple sugar). The juice is reduced to about a quarter of the original volume to become a sticky brown liquid. This is set in clay or leaf moulds and it solidifies to large brown lumps of crumbly sugar that can be broken and used.
Fresh syrupy gur tastes wonderful on bread, roti, parathas and even dissolved in milk. It is used to make various exotic sweetmeats, as well as simpler things like peanut and sesame brittle, and toffees. Rural people even use it to sweeten tea (Indian chai).
Palm sugar is had all over Southeast Asia, and parts of eastern India. It can be got from various palm trees such as the kitul palm, palmyra palm, coconut palm, Indian sugar palm and Malay sugar palm.
Specialised toddy tappers climb the tall palm trees and make cuts in the trunk. They then tie an earthenware pot just below the cut, for the sweet juice or toddy to drip into. This juice is later boiled and reduced into palm sugar. It must be done while the toddy is fresh as the juice ferments within four or five hours and turns into an alcoholic drink.
Palm sugar is set in various moulds (differing from country to country). They can be made of bamboo sections, coconut shells, baskets woven of palm leaves, and other wonderful organic materials. The sugar is known as gur or jaggery in India. It is also known as jaggery in Sri Lanka and Burma, and gula melaka in Malaysia or gula jawa in Indonesia. It is used as a common sweetener in all Southeast Asian countries. In Thailand it is called nam taan pep and is sold in wide-mouthed jars from which it is spooned out directly and used for cooking. Palm sugar can range from cream to pale honey-gold, light brown and deep brown in colour, depending on the sap used to make it.
A favourite natural sugar of North America is made by reducing maple juice got from the “sugar bushes” of rock or sugar maple (Acer saccharum) or black maple (Acer nigrum). Maple juice is watery and taste-less, but when boiled down to the sugar, it gets a lovely woody aroma and sweet taste. The AA grade sugar is light amber in colour and is from the first sap of the season. It is preferred for its delicate flavour. The less expensive Grade A and B is from later extractions, and is darker in colour, more robust in its flavour and contains more nutrients.
Why we should avoid refined sugar
Unfortunately the most common sugar all over the world now is refined white sugar. This has been chemically treated with sulphur dioxide, lime, phosphoric acid, and bleaching agents. It is stripped of all its natural goodness and consists of pure carbohydrates (99.5% sucrose) which give the body empty calories.
Useful Tip If you want to avoid refined sugars, make it a point to read labels and avoid products made with white sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, and fructose. Also look out for artificial sweeteners and avoid them.