When the Greek ambassador Megasthenes visited the Indus Valley in ancient times, he was surprised by the cultivation of sugarcane, which he described as ‘reeds that make honey without the agency of bees’. Sugarcane juice, mentioned in the Jataka tales, shows that Indians have been using machines to press the juice out of sugarcane reeds since around 400 B.C.
Today, as temperatures soar, sugarcane juice is a ubiquitous drink. It’s also far healthier than other drinks that contain sugar – since it contains only natural sugar (and not the high fructose syrup that drinks usually use). And unlike other drinks marketed as ‘healthy’ and sold in plastic packaging with a hefty price tag, sugarcane juice never really got the attention it deserves, largely because India is its second largest producer in the world.
It’s a big business. Sugarcane alone accounts for 1.1 percent of GDP – a high figure considering that much of its potential is underutilized. According to S. Solomon of the Indian Institute of Sugarcane Research, there’s scope for expanding the utilization of sugarcane into bioelectricity, bio manure, and other chemicals. But so far, it’s been the juice or the reed that has captured our attention.
Sugarcane has long been a staple of traditional healing systems such as Ayurveda and Unani. It’s recommended to cure everything from diarrhoea to dysentery and even arthritis. But there’s a catch – traditional healers recommend biting into the cane yourself. Not machines to speed up the process. By virtue of being unrefined, raw sugarcane can be healthier than the processed output we’re accustomed to.
Biting into it is age-old wisdom in more ways than one – machine-made sugarcane juice can be warmer than what you’d get if you just bit right in.
But sugarcane juice has other benefits. It can relieve the symptoms of jaundice, improve lung function, help skinny people grow fatter and fat people grow skinnier, alleviate conjunctivitis, clear skin imperfections, cheer you up with antioxidants – and more. Even Diabetics can enjoy a cool glass – although those with the stage-II variant are usually advised to consult with their doctor.
You could also mix it up with exercise – drink it before or after a workout to stay energetic and hydrated. Since it’s mostly water, it’s useful during sports or exercise – and definitely preferable to sports and energy drinks.
Like with everything else in life, it needs to be taken in moderation. It’s still a significant quantity of sugar being ingested (and without the fiber that comes with chewing the reeds yourself, the juice lacks the element needed to slow down the absorption of sugar).
The sugarcane season in India is here (a factor more of the hot weather than with harvesting, which varies depending on whether it’s grown in the North or South). Since farmers invest a lot of time, money and water into growing sugarcane, keeping the demand for the cane alive is important to prevent farmer suicides. It’s not a very sustainable crop – but the yield of products possible from it make it worth further research. Some studies even suggest sugarcane could power cars in the future.
The caveat is that sugarcane is an extremely thirsty crop, and refining it into sugar costs even more water. The World Wildlife Funds estimates every spoonful of sugar to have consumed 34 litres of water. Even Kautilya (circa 350-275 B.C.) calls it the least profitable of crops, subject to various evils and requiring much care and expenditure. The kinder option would be to consume straight from source.
Choosing to chew the reeds could give your jaws a uniquely delightful experience. It’s a 2500-year-old recommendation from the Sushruta Samhita (Chapter XLV), one of India’s most renowned and revered medical texts. So go ahead and say cheers to the all so delicious sugarcane juice – and be rest assured to quench your sugar fix.
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