Unlike the empty calories we get from every gleaming, heaped spoon of super-refined sugar, jaggery used in traditional Indian cooking is considered a healthier alternative and a superior, more wholesome food

Thoughts of sugar bring only one image to mind—the crystal white granules that flow freely from the spoon, ready to be sprinkled into a morning cuppa or evening tea. But traditionally, sugar in India was never so spotless or gleaming white; it was never ridden with chemicals, bleached and processed. Extracted primarily from natural ingredients like sugar cane (and occasionally from palm and date palm), these natural sugars were called jaggery (‘gur' in North India) and ‘vellum' in Tamil Nadu). Coloured a milky brown, it was used generously in desserts and beverages. There was no guilt while eating jaggery, because in addition to its sweetness, there was another gift it gave us—it nourished the body with plenty of micronutrients and minerals.

Sweet benefits

“A good quality of jaggery has a light colour, flavour, hardness and good keeping quality,” says Rohini Saran, clinical dietician and consultant in nutrition research with the NIPCCD (National Institute for Public Cooperation and Child Development). “Jaggery is also a good source of iron and cost effective as well. When we eat sugar, extra heat is utilized by the body during digestion. We also use up our calcium and potassium reserves during this process. Jaggery on the other hand is easily digested and assimilated. Jaggary is not refined, does not involve much processing and hence nutrients are preserved to some extent. It also provides body and colour to a dish.”

Micronutrients & Minerals

A staple part of many Indian desserts and gravies, jaggery has always been an important ingredient in traditional Indian cooking. It embellishes foods in many avatars—you'll find it ground into payasam, puffed rice balls and sweetened pongal. Experts believe that the presence of micronutrients makes jaggery a wholesome addition to your diet. “It has many benefits, ranging from its negligible sodium content to the presence of many minerals,” says Saran.

“It is an ideal choice for active people and athletes because it provides slow, sustained energy (unlike processed sugar which gives you a high spurt of energy soon after you eat it, only to leave you feeling tired and drained in a little while).

The mineral content of jaggery is impressive— it has magnesium, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, iron and copper and is rich in Vitamins B1, B2 and vitamin C,” says Sridevi Balaji, consultant dietician and specialist in sports nutrition. “One of the biggest benefits, stemming from its rich potassium content is that it helps maintain the acid balance in the body by reducing accumulation of acids and acetones.”

If you feel the burn during or after every meal, then eating a small amount of jaggery daily will help. “This property of jaggery aids in digestion after a heavy meal or even otherwise,” says Balaji. “High potassium content also reduces the incidence of hypertension. Its antioxidant property prevents harmful free radicals (substances that develop in our bodies as a by product of our metabolic processes and which are said to cause rapid aging) from affecting the body's cells.”

Protection against pollutants

According to a study conducted by A.P.Sahu and A.K.Saxena (Industrial Toxicology Research Centre, Lucknow), jaggery was found to provide protection for workers in a smoky and dusty environment. As pollution is rampant in cities and even small towns these days, jaggery assumes importance in our diets as an effective remedy. Its anti asthmatic properties, the study found, also eases breathing difficulties. This is good news for people who are sensitive or allergic to pollutants, but are constantly exposed to it.

Natural Cure

Herbal medicine has long since stumbled upon the curative effects of jaggery. Used to soothe severe cough and cold, ayurveda recommends it to bring out phlegm. Sometimes, it's added to honey and dried ginger powder, other popular natural remedies for cough. “It's also heralded as a good remedy for joint and rheumatic problems,” says Balaji.

To make jaggery a regular part of your diet, replace the sugar in your foods with the same amount of powdered jaggery. “Beverages like coffee and tea taste better with jaggery and it can be added as a sweetener that would replace sugar. It can be added to porridges for adults and children,” says Balaji.

As far as calorific count is concerned, the calories in sugar are the same as in jaggery, so if you're diabetic or dieting, you still need to keep a close watch on your intake. Excessive amounts of potassium can also cause kidney problems, so monitor judiciously for best results.