What Is Jaggery?
The scientific or technical definition of jaggery is an amorphous form of unrefined and non-distilled sugar prepared from the sap or the juice of plants that contains a considerable amount of sucrose or sugar. This includes things like sugar cane and certain palms like date palm and Palmyra. Sometimes, it is also called country sugar, since it is prepared in rural households of certain countries. It is also called molasses due to its semi-solid state. Chemically, it is defined as C12H22O12.
Jaggery is not widely known in western countries, since it is rarely prepared there. Jaggery is predominantly made in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Besides tasting very good, it has many health benefits. Now, let’s explore a bit more about this colorful and tasty food!
Different Types of Jaggery
Although the term “jaggery” is generally used for the molasses obtained from the juice of sugar cane, it also refers to the jaggery made from the sap of palms, like Date palm, Palmyra, Toddy palm and a few other plants. Now, let’s take a look at the various types of jaggery and their different characteristics.
Color: Golden brown to dark brown.
Preparation: It is prepared by boiling sugar cane juice.
Physical state: Amorphous solid to viscous granular liquid.
Place of availability: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Philippines, Malaysia, Cuba, and Mexico. India is the biggest producer and biggest consumer.
Taste: Very sweet, with a hint of salt, depending upon the quality of the juice that is used.
Date Palm Jaggery
Color: Golden brown to dark Brown.
Preparation: It is prepared by boiling the sap of Date palm.
Physical state: Amorphous solid and viscous granular to clear red liquid.
Place of availability: India (West Bengal) & Bangladesh.
Taste: Very sweet with the typical aroma of Date palm sap, somewhat like dark chocolate.
Color: Off-white to pale yellowish white.
Preparation: It is prepared by boiling the sap of Palmyra palm.
Physical state: Amorphous solid.
Place of availability: India (West Bengal) & Bangladesh.
Taste: Very sweet with the typical aroma of Palmyra sap, somewhat like white chocolate.
Toddy Palm Jaggery
Color: Golden Brown.
Preparation: It is prepared by boiling the sap of Toddy palm.
Physical state: Amorphous solid.
Place of availability: Myanmar.
Taste: Very sweet with the typical aroma of Toddy palm sap.
Other Palm Jaggery
These days, even the sap of Sago palm and Coconut palm are being used to make jaggery, but they are rarely available or heard of. The process of preparation remains the same, that is, the sap is boiled to a concentrated form until it attains an amorphous, solid form. The color ranges from golden yellow to golden brown to brown, depending upon the extent of boiling and the sugar content of the sap. Jaggery from these palms is made in Malaysia, Myanmar and Philippines.
Uses of Jaggery
Jaggery, apart from being used in households as a sweetener and a flavoring agent, is also used extensively in the food and beverage industry. It is used in chocolates, candies, sorbets, health tonics such as Chyavanprash, syrups, and for making alcoholic beverages, particularly rum. It has other industrial applications too.
Health Benefits of Jaggery
Jaggery of any type is better for health than refined white sugar. Its health benefits are explained in greater detail below.
High Fiber and Mineral Content: It is rich in minerals, salts, vitamins and even contains some fiber, whereas sugar, being highly refined, lacks these things. The darker the jaggery is in color, the richer it is in mineral content (particularly iron content) and the better it is for your health.
Better Than Sugar: It is much more complex than refined sugar and therefore does not increase the sugar level of the blood very quickly. It provides energy slowly, over a longer period. Although diabetics should avoid jaggery, it is still better in this respect for diabetics than sugar is.
Respiratory Tract Cleanser: For centuries on the Indian Subcontinent, jaggery (sugar cane jaggery) has been in use as a lung, throat, and respiratory tract cleanser as well as an additive to the local remedies for coughs and colds. This cleansing property of jaggery has been proven over many generations. The regular intake of jaggery is particularly recommended for those who work in kilns, cement factories, stone crushers, dusty workplaces, furnaces and those who have to do a lot of driving, due to the effect that these professions can have on the respiratory system.
Cooling Effect: Palmyra jaggery, usually made into a drink by dissolving in water, has a remarkable cooling effect on the body during the summer. Perhaps that is the reason why Palmyra sap is harvested and jaggery is made only during the summer.
Warming Effect: Date palm jaggery is manufactured and consumed in the winter. It has a warming effect on the body and is nutritious as well.
Jaggery – Cultural Aspects
Jaggery, made from sugar cane juice or palm sap, reserves a distinct place in Indian culture and is used in many religious activities, rituals & customs. The sugar cane jaggery is considered sacred and is consumed before the commencement of a new venture, journey, or business endeavor. It is customarily consumed after child birth, after attending a funeral, and to celebrate any good news.
Jaggery is an integral part of almost all harvest festivals celebrated in India. In Southern India, rice is cooked in sugar cane jaggery to make Pongal, a dish offered to the gods after the harvest. Similarly, in western and northern India, sweet dishes are made from sugar cane jaggery and newly harvested crops like sesame, ground nuts, rice, and wheat flour to celebrate the harvest.
In Eastern India, fabulously tasty sweet dishes like rice cakes, rice puddings, porridge, milk and coconut sweets are made using rice flour, milk, coconut shredding and date palm jaggery. In that area, this date palm jaggery is also offered to Goddess Saraswati and other gods and goddesses.
Jaggery is manufactured using two different processes. One is a manual process and the other is through automated plants. The majority of jaggery manufacturing happens through the manual process.
In India and neighboring countries, jaggery is made predominantly in rural areas by farmers. Although automated mills have been invented, manual jaggery manufacturing still remains the most widely used and most favored method of jaggery manufacturing. It is the only method followed all over India. This method seems simple, since no machine or electronic system is involved in it, but it does require a lot of experience and expertise.
The process of manufacturing jaggery involves crushing sugar cane using a crusher and then extracting the juice from it. The sugar cane juice is then poured in a large, shallow but thick iron vessel or pan, called a Kadhai. It is made to boil over earthen ovens. It is continuously stirred using large ladles to avoid sticking at the bottom of the vessel. This boiling and stirring goes on for hours until most of the water from the juice has evaporated and the juice starts to thicken, as the concentration of sugar increases. Slowly, it becomes super-saturated and assumes a thick, golden to golden brown paste form. It requires a lot of experience to decide the right moment when the jaggery is done, because anything under or over may ruin the taste.
Some manufacturers also add sodium bicarbonate (Edible Soda), the juice of Lady’s Finger to improve the color, and a local herb known as Veranda in Bengali to give the jaggery a granular texture. The color and taste depend upon the degree of boiling. Some people prefer dark jaggery to light ones and vice versa. The thick paste that is obtained is then poured in various molds, pertaining to different quantities. Upon further condensation, the jaggery solidifies and is taken out of the molds, wrapped in paper and packed in jute or plastic bags. Thereafter, local agents or businessmen collect this jaggery from farmers and sell it in local markets. This is why you never see a company tag on any jaggery sold in India. The process for manufacturing Date palm jaggery and Palmyra jaggery remains the same. These two types of jaggery are invariably manufactured manually.
Jaggery-making is a popular activity in several parts of India, especially Mahrashtra and Uttar Pradesh. However, the technology used by the manufacturers is quite old. There have been little improvement made in the manufacturing process to enhance the productivity of the process. However, some work is now being carried out at the Sugarcane and Jaggery Research Center in Kolhapur, TIDE in Bangalore and IIT Bombay.
Manufacturing by Automated Plants
This method of jaggery manufacturing is still in its infancy and is being used in very few countries. There is nothing much to tell about the process. Just pour in sugar cane juice from one end, set the plant at required temperature and time, and wait for the jaggery blocks to come out from the other end. The best advantage of using an automated plant over the manual method is that you get uniformly processed jaggery, of the same colour and taste, in uniformly packed quantities. This method is used only for sugar cane jaggery. So far, there has not been any instance of using this method for Date palm jaggery or Palmyra jaggery.
There needs to be some caution taken, however. It is not a good idea to try making jaggery at home. The first reason for this is that getting a thick iron vessel like that will be a problem. Even if you get that, things will be different when you try making at home, compared to what they do in a large scale. A lot of things, such as an even distribution of temperature, proper stirring, and final moisture content are essential. Finally, the expertise that is required…only trained experts can judge whether the jaggery is done.
Crisis for Jaggery Manufacturers
Date palm jaggery and Palmyra jaggery are going through difficult days in India. The production has reduced drastically over the past decade, the reasons being that these palms are getting older, they are being cut down for construction, pollution, and the lack of planting new palms. This has raised the price and lowered the quality. Another reason is that this business was never looked upon as an industry and was never organized. A handful of farmer families used to make this jaggery and are still making it. Their new generations are not at all interested in pursuing this business as they see no future in it. So, most of the palm jaggery available in the open market is adulterated with sugarcane jaggery, which is far cheaper. Original & unadulterated palm jaggery should melt when left out, even at room temperature. On the other hand, the future of sugarcane jaggery seems to be the only one with any potential.
Adulterations in Jaggery
Although jaggery is not costly, still the insatiable greed of man has not spared even this local delicacy. Not all jaggery is adulterated, but there are certain manufacturers who let greed prevail over the quality of their products. There are different types of adulterations for different types of jaggery, and some of them are explained below.
Adulterations in Sugar Cane Jaggery
The following adulterations have been detected in samples of sugar cane jaggery.
Sodium bicarbonate: Some people might not consider this an adulteration, you might even say that it is a requirement of the process in some cases. Still, sodium bicarbonate is most commonly used in the preparation of sugar cane jaggery to improve its color. It does not have any adverse effect on health. This can be judged by the color. The darker varieties are less likely to have this, while the light colored ones are most likely.
ZFS (Zinc formaldehyde sulphoxylate): Commonly used in the textile industry, this harmful chemical is used in jaggery to improve its color. The darker the jaggery, the better the quality of the jaggery. However, the common belief is that lighter jaggery is good and hence some manufacturers add these harmful chemicals to lighten the jaggery.
Sodium hydrophosphide: This is another harmful chemical used in jaggery to give it a brighter color.
Calcium carbonate (CaCO3): This is added to improve color, as well as to add weight, since lime is far cheaper than jaggery. This can also be judged by the color (it should be light), hardness (should be very hard) and by the taste (if you have eaten unadulterated jaggery, you can detect this).
Adulterations in Date Palm Jaggery
This variety of jaggery is commonly adulterated with the following.
Sugar Cane Jaggery: Sugarcane jaggery is much cheaper (Rs.10 to 25 per Kg.) than Date Palm Jaggery (Rs.40 to 100 per Kg.). So, the reason is obvious. It can be detected by the hardness (original unadulterated date palm jaggery is very soft and melts even at room temperature, whereas adulterated one should be much harder) and by the taste (it lacks the typical aroma and taste of unadulterated date palm jaggery). Sometimes, simple sugar cane jaggery blocks are coated with date palm jaggery to fool the customers. Therefore, see what is inside before you buy.
Plain sugar: Again, the reason for this use is the same as above; sugar is cheaper. It makes the jaggery harder.
Adulterations in Palmyra Jaggery
This variety of jaggery is adulterated with the following.
Sugar: Palmyra jaggery, being the most expensive (Rs.80 to 120 per Kg.) of all types of jaggery available in India, is most commonly adulterated with plain sugar. This can easily be detected by the hardness (the test is the same as that of date palm jaggery adulterated with sugar cane jaggery). Sometimes, sugar crystals can also be seen embedded in the jaggery blocks when scrutinized carefully. Again, the jaggery adulterated with sugar will be much whiter than the unadulterated one, which is pale yellow in color. So, be sure to check well.
Sodium bicarbonate: This is added to give the jaggery a whiter look.
Yellow Color: This color is often added when the jaggery contains excessive sugar contained in it and looks very white. This may be harmful for the health as no edible colors are used in these cases.
Consumption of jaggery in the diet should be given more emphasis, provided you get original and unadulterated varieties. This industry also needs to be organized, particularly in the case of palm jaggery, or this delicacy will soon be lost. Thereofre, let us strive to make our future sweet!
i. My own experiences with jaggery as I have seen it being made since my childhood.
ii. Wikipedia Pages (For information regarding jaggery made in Myanmar).
iii. Textbooks followed in schools.
iv. Various reports on jaggery published in newspapers, Health Magazines and other media from time to time.