The poor Indian who does not think twice before guzzling sugarcane juice, complete with ginger, lemon juice and mint, on the roadside is consuming a nutritious food. But for the missing link that is hygiene, he is much better off than his well-off counterpart, who does not get this healthy drink in regular juice stalls and restaurants. Worse still, he/she is condemned to consuming the hazardous refined sugar in almost every snack and so-called health drink.
The packaging of sugarcane juice without destroying its nutrients, like that of tender coconut water, is a tall order. A study quoted in the International Journal of Food Properties (published online in 2007) on the preservation of sugarcane juice noted that fresh sugarcane juice sample spoiled in three to four hours at room temperature and in eight hours when refrigerated. Pasteurized juice mixed with citric acid and other preservatives, according to this study, had a storage capacity of 90 days.
The efficacy of fresh sugarcane juice as an energy-boosting, sports drink, in comparison with commercial beverages and plain water, has also been tested. A 2019 book on non-alcoholic beverages, quoted in sciencedirect.com, refers to a study that involved 15 male athletes aged 18 to 25 years and found fresh sugarcane juice as effective as a commercial sports drink during comfortable exercising environment of less than 30 degrees Celsius. As a post-exercise rehydration drink, the study said, sugarcane juice surpassed both commercially- designed drinks and water.
Ayurveda confirms that natural sugar found inside the cane is among the most nutritious foods. Dr. Mohnanan Warrier of the reputed Kerala-based Kottakal Arya Vaidya Sala says: “Drinking 240 ml of sugarcane juice and adding one teaspoon of lemon juice per day is good for health, the vitamin C in lemon helps to increase the absorption of nutrients in sugarcane juice.”
Sugarcane is also loaded with minerals, including potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, thiamine, riboflavin, and several amino acids. Weight-watchers, Dr. Warrier says, have no reason to fear sugarcane: “A glass or 240 ml. of sugarcane juice only has 180 calorie along with high dietary fibre, and it does not increase body weight.”
Refined sugar, on the other hand, he warns, “is high in calories and zero in nutrients”. “Consuming excess sugar leads to metabolic dysfunction, obesity, lethargy, tooth decay, hyper activity in children, and many lifestyle diseases.”
“Processing of sugarcane with chemicals makes it useless, even harmful,” he says. “People suffering from diabetes, obesity, dyslipidemia and heart disease should completely avoid refined sugar, while all others should reduce the use of white sugar to minimum.”
Dr. Warrier advises switching over to other natural sweeteners like jaggery, honey, stevia and maple syrup. According to Ayurveda, sugarcane has the following properties: brimhana(improves nourishment), vrishya (aphrodisiac, enhances the functions of genitor-urinary system), sara (laxative), snigdha (oily, unctuous, maintains lubrication of joints and other organs) shleshmala (increases kapha) and, of course, the most obvious, madhura (sweet), which is at once its boon and bane.
White sugar, which is ironically present in most of the so-called fresh fruit juices and market-recommended protein shakes for children, becomes an enemy of gum and teeth health right from childhood. In sharp contrast, “chewing sugarcane and thereby consuming the juice is great for strengthening the teeth,” says Dr. Warrier.
Aware of its nutritional and market value, online grocery and food stores like Big Basket have started selling cut and diced sugarcane, which is good news for those who cannot have the obviously contaminated and commonly available sugarcane juice on the roadside. (end)
The author is a senior journalist, based in Delhi