Sugar cane may not have originated in India, but sugar was first made here and going by the fact that the word sakara made its appearance in texts around 500 BCE (Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Paniniya, which according to Vettam Mani’s Puranic Encyclopaedia, was written by Panini), we have been doing it for over 2,000 years.

Now, khand or khandsari and shakara are the Indian names for various sugar products made in India since ancient times and the popular English translations of these words feature the word “sugar”. (Incidentally, the etymological root of the word “candy” is khand.) But this is misleading because the way “sugar” was made thousands of years ago in India (and is still made in many parts of India) is a very far cry from what is consumed as sugar today. And the difference lies in the degree of what is euphemistically termed “refinement”.

The basic process of making various kinds of sweeteners from sugar cane juice is what it was thousands of years ago, wherein sugar cane juice is heated to high temperatures while being repeatedly cleansed of its impurities and then either left to cool to become jaggery or is then further processed till it crystallizes and becomes various kinds of “sugar” like khandsari, etc. According to Charaka, the stages of the conversion of sugar cane into various sweeteners are first jaggery, then khandsari, then matsyandika and finally shakara or sugar.

But it seems that we humans have always placed a premium on “white” and “refined” and it is no different with food. So, wheat flour is “refined” till it is robbed of its “brownness” which is the stuff that makes it healthy, like bran and fibre. And the current-day manufacture of sugar is a complicated process which involves the repeated use of chemicals to “refine” the sugar cane juice of its “impurities” to such an extent that it turns into those beautiful sparkling white crystals. But as a result of this “refinement”, all the nutrients that were originally there in the sugar cane are also removed or destroyed.

You see, it’s a very simple equation – the more you process and/or refine a food, the unhealthier and less nutritional it gets. Sugar, which has received so much bad press, is present in one form or another in all-natural foods – fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and dairy. In fact, it is ubiquitous in Nature because, by the process of photosynthesis, all plants produce glucose (a form of sugar) by harnessing water, sunlight, and carbohydrates. So, sugar is a vital source of energy for all life on this planet. But here’s the thing – we need only a certain amount of sugar. So, when we eat food that is as close to its natural form – and I like to use the phrase “first generation food” to define it – two things happen.

One, we consume sugar in the required and therefore healthy quantities. Two, we consume it together with the nutrients that come along with it – like vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and antioxidants.

Which means that refined white sugar is a carbohydrate detached of all goodness – or to use the unkinder definitions, it is “naked” carbohydrate or empty calories. Jaggery (and many traditionally made sugars like khandsari), on the other hand, retains many of the nutrients that were originally present in the sugar cane juice. To add weight to what I am saying, the FAO recognises “dehydrated sugar cane products” like jaggery “for their non-centrifugated nature, meaning glucose, fructose and mineral residue are maintained instead of being lost in extensive refinement or spinning.”

So, jaggery is a veritable mine of health because of the presence of minerals. Minerals are nutrients that are present in the body in such tiny amounts that they are often called “trace minerals” (the maximum daily requirement of the most dominant mineral is just 4.7 grams). But they determine the healthy functioning of every organ and metabolic system of the body and can help prevent a host of life-threatening diseases including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, even cancer. And minerals are vital in ensuring that your immune system is shored up to tackle the deadliest viruses.

Naturally, both sugar cane and jaggery feature frequently in all Ayurvedic texts, including the Brihat Trayi. So, in its classification of foods, the Charaka Samhita devotes an entire category only to sugar cane and its various avatars like jaggery and sugar called – naturally – ikshu varga. According to Charaka, there are two varieties of sugar cane, and sugar cane juice that is sucked from the sugar cane after chewing has medicinal properties while that extracted by crushing it in a mill is not. Sushruta agrees but according to him, there are twelve varieties of sugar cane!

The number of formulations using jaggery are too many to be listed but, if one were to summarize the therapeutic properties of jaggery as laid out in Ayurveda, it reiterates much of what current-day nutritionists say about its treasury of nutritional wealth and therapeutic benefits. Since it is a sugar, it is a nourishing food and an instant, healthy source of energy – so, Ayurveda uses it to relieve fatigue and increase weight. It is also used in Ayurveda as a multitasking detoxifier, purifying the blood, urine, liver, and digestive system. That is because jaggery is a rich source of minerals like potassium, iron (20 grams or one and a half tablespoons can have as much as 10 per cent of RDA), copper, magnesium and zinc that act as detoxifiers in almost every part of the body.

Also, calcium – and jaggery contains 4-5 per cent of RDA in 20 grams – together with manganese make sure that your bones are strong and joints are in good working condition. Iron partners with copper to keep haemoglobin at the right levels which means blood that is oxygen-rich, and potassium works with sodium (ever wondered about the very subtle underlying salty taste in jaggery?) to maintain blood pressure and as muscle and nerve relaxants, regulating nerve impulses and muscular contractions. All this impacts both cardiac and respiratory health. So, Ayurveda also uses jaggery to treat anaemia, respiratory disorders, and joint pains and to keep the heart healthy.

Excerpted with permission from Immunity in a Spoon of Ghee: Superfoods from the Indian Kitchen, Ratna Rajaiah, Speaking Tiger Books.