Americans consume an average of 152 pounds of sugar a year-an increase of 30 pounds compared to two decades ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Processing refined sugar from sugar cane, though, often includes the use of harsh chemicals, such as sulfur dioxide, phosphoric acid, and bleaching agents, that strip it of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, leaving what nutritionists refer to as "empty calories."
Yet not all sweeteners are nutritional duds. For those reluctant to surrender their sweet tooth, there is a healthier alternative: jaggery, a staple in many Eastern diets that is used to sweeten foods like rice pudding, hot coconut milk, and vegetarian curries.
Jaggery comes from either the sap of sugar cane or palm trees, and its flavor is described as an aromatic blend between brown sugar and molasses with fermented or wine undertones. But what makes jaggery superior to regular sugar is the way it's made.
Because it is processed without the use of chemicals, jaggery retains many vital vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium. In fact, jaggery has a mineral content approximately 50 times greater than refined sugar and five times more than brown sugar. Just a teaspoon of jaggery delivers approximately 3-5 mg of calcium, 3-5 mg phosphorous, 6 mg magnesium, and 45 mg of potassium. It sells in most East Indian markets in a spreadable form called gur, or as a grainy, brown, coffee can-shaped chunk. Jaggery can be used in practically any food or beverage where you might want to add a few spoonfuls of sugar. You can grate or cut jaggery into small pieces and add it to cereal or coffee; gur can be used on bread and other baked items. Jaggery can also be chopped up and dissolved in water to form a syrup to sweeten custards, rice, or even poured over ice cream. You can substitute jaggery for granulated white sugar in many recipes-you will need to use about one-and-a-half times the amount of jaggery to achieve the equivalent level of sweetness.
Jaggery's health benefits even go beyond the kitchen. It has long been observed that people who work in highly toxic surroundings and regularly consume jaggery, such as industrial workers in dusty or smoky environments, have little or no bronchial or lung discomfort. And a study in Environmental Health Perspectives (1994: 211-214) reported that jaggery reduced the number of lesions formed in rats' lungs infiltrated with coal and silica dust.
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