If you are looking for something sweet that is also good for your body, try panela. It is the original unrefined product of sugar cane, in the same form first made centuries ago. This rich, brown sweetener with a caramel flavor has a long cultural heritage in Central and South America as a heath-giving food. In India, where it is called jaggery, it is also considered a health food, and was even recommended by Gandhi as a traditional alternative to industrialized white sugar.
Long before industrialization, sugar cane was cultivated and its juice extracted by hand as a medicine. The sugar cane is extremely hard and tough. That the effort was made to extract the juice without the modern machinery used today indicates its value to traditional peoples.
To obtain panela, organic sugar canes are carefully washed, gently squeezed, and evaporated in the open air on small farms in Central and South America. The resulting gel is then poured into molds and cooled, and sold in hard bricks of various shapes. It is a traditional artisan product with all its original vitamins and minerals.
What sets panela apart from other sugar cane sweeteners is that it is completely unrefined. The first step of making any sugar is to press the juice and cook it down into a thick syrup. Panela stops there. The refining process takes panela and continues to boil it until crystals form, which separates the sucrose from the remaining liquid and all the nutrients. Refining continues until the cane juice is completely separated into refined white sugar, and black molasses. Any time you see a crystallized (or “granulated”) sugar, it’s been refined to some degree. Panela is not. There is no industrial process involved in making panela at all.
A nutritional analysis of panela shows why it has traditionally been considered a health-giving food. Panela contains significant amounts of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron–more than most commonly eaten foods.
Traditional cultures know that panela has some unique medicinal properties. It prevents tooth decay, nutritious anemia (due to iron deficiency) and rickets (due to vitamin C deficiency). It also provides energy without the “sugar rush” and blood sugar spikes that are the result of refined sugars.
In South America, the main use of panela is to make health drinks, known as Aguapanela or Papelon con Limon. These are extremely popular. They are given to infants and even cyclists drink them as a natural sport drink due to their high vitamin and mineral content. It is also used as a flu remedy.
In the United States, panela is sold in it’s original block form in Hispanic stores and is the key ingredient in a drink sold under the Pannela brand (www.mypannela.com).