“Have some jaggery and water”, said my mother, before I stepped out to run some errands.
It was mid-March and the afternoon temperature was hovering between 39-40 degrees Celsius in Pune, Maharashtra.
The severe heatwave had prompted the Indian Meteorological Department to switch its orange alert to yellow.
“It has been the hottest summer in the last fifty years”, she remarked as she pulled out a piece of jaggery from the cupboard.
“Jaggery will load you with essential nutrients and prevent dehydration”. In most parts of India, it is a common practice to eat a piece of jaggery or sip some jaggery water before stepping out of home especially during summers.
Bellam Paanakam is a traditional South Indian drink, made with jaggery, black pepper, cardamom and water, which is popularly consumed in summers to beat the heat and balance electrolytes in the body.
Jaggery a Winter Staple?
Jaggery has always been considered to be a winter staple helping us keep our bodies warm but on the contrary, jaggery works wonders even in summers.
A small piece of jaggery with warm water or a bite or two of jaggery during the day, boosts the energy levels and prevents dehydration.
“Jaggery contains a lot of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, manganese and vitamins such as A, E and C and has a less glycemic index compared to white sugar. It helps boost digestion and gives instant energy,“ says Dr Manoj Kutteri, medical director and CEO of Atmantan Wellness Centre.
He is a seasoned holistic medicine practitioner with over two decades of experience in wellness centres in India and abroad.
“Moreover, the fructooligosaccharides present in jaggery act as a prebiotic and feed healthy bacteria in the colon."
History of Jaggery
Known as sarkara (in Sanskrit), it was the only sugar known to the subcontinent.
Ayurvedic texts dating back to over 5,000 years mention its benefits for boosting blood purification, improving digestion, and enhancing bone and pulmonary health.
Ayurvedic text Ashtanga Hrudayam Sutrasthana explains that regular consumption of washed and cleaned jaggery serves as a diuretic while unrefined jaggery serves as a natural blood purifier, boosts strength and works as an aphrodisiac.
Thus, it's no wonder that jaggery forms the base of many Ayurvedic medicines like Asavas and Arishtas – fermented liquid Ayurvedic medicines used for treading cold and flu.
A study published in Ayurpharm - International Journal of Ayurveda and Allied Sciences in 2016 points out that jaggery is nutritionally comparable with honey. It explains how jaggery is loaded with folic acid and B- complex vitamins, helping prevent rheumatic afflictions and disorders of bile.
Though jaggery has been cultivated in India for thousands of years, it was the Portuguese who discovered it in Kerala in the late 1600s. From the Malayalam cakkarã, they rechristened it xagarã, which later became jaggery.
It is technically called non-centrifugal cane sugar because of the way it is made.
Sugarcane juice is poured in large metal vats laid on open fires, and undergoes heating and evaporation. It is stirred continuously and as the juice thickens, lime is added so that the liquid rises to the top and is skimmed off. It is then poured into moulds of different sizes to harden. Once set, it is tapped out, packed and stored away for sale.
Benefits of Jaggery
Though there are several benefits of jaggery one of the main ones is to prevent constipation. According to Ayurveda, constipation leads to accumulation of toxins in the body and is the root cause of many disease. Celebrity nutritionist, Rujuta Diwekar, recommends having jaggery and ghee post lunch.
In one of her Instagram posts on local food wisdom she writes, “Rich in iron and essential fatty acids, this combo won’t just keep sweet tooth at bay but also help with hormones and immunity”.
She further explains that constipation leads to sweet cravings post meals. Jaggery helps in digestion while ghee acts as a laxative helping relieve constipation.
Jaggery converts acetic acid present in food aiding digestion.
“It helps relieve constipation even in small kids and can be used with other foods such as sesame or ‘manuka ’(raisins) to treat anaemic conditions ”, adds Dr Kutteri.
Another nutritionist, Kavita Devgan, highlights the benefits of jaggery (in her Instagram post) saying “its a better sweetener, digestive and delivers some minerals too”.
“Chewing a small piece of ‘gur’ after food is a well known home remedy to reduce acidity. The good amounts of magnesium helps in smooth digestion and averts acidity”, says Dr Jitendra Varshney, the Wellness Director at Six Senses Fort Barwara.
Thus, jaggery is widely used in Maharashtra in everyday cooking. Whether it is the dals or curries or sabji (vegetables), some amount of jaggery is added. This not only enhances the flavour of the dish but also packs it with nutrients.
Jaggery is also used in many traditional recipes like puran poli (a sweet Maharashtrian delicacy made with chana dal), Gulgule (flat breads made of pumpkin and jaggery) and chikki (sweet made from nuts and jaggery).
Making the Switch
With an increased focus on healthy foods and avoiding refined products, people are making the switch from white sugar to natural sweeteners like jaggery. Meenakshi Bundele, an IT professional and a fashion aspirant, made the switch last year when she faced acidity problems with tea made from sugar.
"Adding jaggery to tea helps reduce acidity, inflammation and bloating."Meenakshi Bundele, IT professional and a fashion aspirant
"Also, “Gur wali chai” definitely helps when you want to reduce weight but can't stay without ‘chai’", she smiles.
Ananya Bahl, writer and editor based in Mumbai, turned to jaggery tea when she turned 30 as she wanted to make certain healthy choices in terms of eating. But instead of the regular ‘gur ’she turned to the Bengali variant - nolen gur.
Her love for Bengali sweets (prepared using this gur) prompted her to add it to her tea as well.
“Now my tea tastes like Sandesh and thats what makes it special”, she elaborates.
Jaggery is being used more than ever before and its use has been intensified due to the current pandemic situation.
"Being a Punjabi, I can't do without sweets so I began seeking healthier alternatives. Substituting jaggery for white sugar, has helped me in more ways than one with the main one being proving to be a cure for PCOS. It has also proved to be a relief against stress, increased energy and acting as a digestive aid.”Divya Jethi, a PR professional based in Mumbai
(Pranjali Bhonde is a freelance writer based in Pune. She shares her experiences on food, fashion and lifestyle on her Instagram handle @moipalate.)