Sugar has become a dreaded word in the modern world. The term is used for the diabetes disease which is acquiring the epidemic proportions in the world. Although sugar alone cannot be blamed for this disease. Sugar is the major energy source along with fats on which our bodies run. Even the carbohydrates which we take in the form of bread and rice are ultimately broken down to simpler sucrose and then glucose compounds and are assimilated by our bodies. It is a matter of living style like stressful life, overeating and sedentary habits. So let us not blame sugar and know about it.
Sugar cane is a form of grass and the source of 70% of the world’s sugar which is extracted from the sweet, juicy stems. In many South Asian countries like India and Pakistan, when the stalks of sugarcane mature, they are chewed for their sugary syrup. The stalk is divided into pieces like the bamboo stalk and sweetness of the stalks decreases from bottom towards upper stalks. Of course, green portion at the top is only grassy. It is eaten as small pieces by the children.
This was the original use of sugar cane. Afterwards the sugar extraction processes began and it became the most important source of sugar followed by the beetroots and palms. The juice is extracted by pressing the sugarcane in a press consisting of rollers of steel and operated by bullocks or nowadays with engines. Area of West Maharashtra near Nashik are famous for the sugarcane production. Uttar Pradesh also produced lots of sugarcane. There are many mills for large scale production of sugar and molasses.
Sugarcane originated in New Guinea where it has been known since about 6000 BC. From about 1000 BC its cultivation gradually spread along human migration routes to Southeast Asia and India and East into the Pacific. It is thought to have been hybridized with wild sugarcanes of India and China, to produce the ‘thin’ canes. It spread westwards to the Mediterranean between 600-1400 AD.
Arabs were responsible for much of its spread as they took it to Egypt around 640 AD, during their conquests. They carried it with them as they advanced around the Mediterranean. Sugarcane spread by this means to Syria, Cyprus, and Crete, eventually reaching Spain around 715 AD.
Around 1420 the Portuguese introduced sugar cane into Madeira, from where it soon reached the Canary Islands, the Azores, and West Africa. Columbus transported sugarcane from the Canary Islands to what is now the Dominican Republic in 1493. The crop was taken to Central and South America from the 1520s onwards, and later to the British and French West Indies.
Sugarcane has a very long history of cultivation in the Indian sub-continent. The earliest reference to it is in the Atharva Veda (c. 1500-800 BC) where it is called ikshu and mentioned as an offering in sacrificial rites. The Atharva Veda uses it as a symbol of sweet attractiveness.
The word ‘sugar’ is thought to derive from the ancient Sanskrit sharkara. By the 6th century BC sharkara was frequently referred to in Sanskrit texts which even distinguished superior and inferior varieties of sugarcane. The Susrutha Samhita listed 12 varieties; the best types were supposed to be the vamshika with thin reeds and the paundraka of Bengal. It was also being called guda, a term which is still used in India to denote jaggery. A Persian account from the 6th century BC gives the first account of solid sugar and describes it as coming from the Indus Valley. This early sugar would have resembled what is known as ‘raw’ sugar: Indian dark brown sugar or Gur.
At this time honey was the only sweetener in the countries beyond Asia and all visitors to India were much taken with the ‘reed which produced honey without bees’. The Greek historian Herodotus knew of the sugarcane in the 5th century BC and Alexander is said to have sent some home when he came to the Punjab region in 326 BC. Practically every traveler to India over the centuries mentions sugarcane; the Moroccan Ibn Battuta wrote of the sugarcanes of Kerala which excelled every other in the 14th century; Francois Bernier, in India from 1658-59, wrote of the extensive fields of sugarcane in Bengal.
Raw and refined sugars in simple terms are produced by heating, removing impurities and crystallizing sugar cane juice. Sucrose is the main constituent in this juice. Raw and refined sugars are exported all over the world for use in pretty much everything from sweet and savoury dishes to processed foods and drinks and preserving fruits and meat. These sugars are also compressed into sugar cubes or made into syrup. White sugar can be further processed into icing sugar to be used in desserts, baking and confectionery. It is a dark, syrupy product and is used for the preparation of edible syrups and for numerous industrial products. In Brazil alcohol is prepared from the sugarcane juice and is used as a fuel for the automobiles. Its end products after burning are carbondioxide and water which are completely pollution free.
As the sugar cane juice contains energy giving sugar as well many minerals, it is used in the treatment of certain illnesses. Both the roots and stems of sugar cane are used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat skin and urinary tract infections, as well as for bronchitis, heart conditions, loss of milk production, cough, anaemia, constipation as well as general debility. Some texts advise its use for jaundice and low blood pressure.
A very surprising use of sugar is for removing body hair. A warm paste of sugar, water and lemon juice is applied to the skin. Strips of cloth are then pressed over the paste and are then quickly torn off, taking the hair with them. Enthusiasts claim that this procedure becomes less painful with time. The practice of sugaring may date to ancient times in South Asia.
Sugar is also used to exfoliate skin and in soap-making. It has been claimed that application of sugar cane extracts can benefit the skin, but there is no evidence for this.
In Indian Literature
Indian literature abounds in references to the sugarcane: early Tamil literature describes sugarcane along the banks of the River Kaveri, and indeed sugarcane was usually cultivated in river valleys. Early Indian kings set aside land for pleasure gardens, groves and public parks, and gardens were attached to palaces and grand mansions. The Kamasutra, an early erotic treatise written by Vatsyayana (c. 2nd century AD – c.4th century AD), recommended that a cultivated and wealthy man should surround his house with a garden.
The garden would be under the care of his wife who would dictate the layout of the garden and its planting, while the physical labour was left to professional gardeners. The Kamasutra spoke of pleasure gardens and practical gardens and was specific about what should be planted in the gardens. The practical garden had to include beds of green vegetables, sugarcane, fig trees, mustard, parsley and fennel. The great goddess Kamakshi of Tamil Nadu is portrayed in art holding in her four hands lotus blossom, sugar cane stalks, elephant goad and noose.