You break it, crush it or squeeze it, still you will get sweetness has been often said of sugar cane and the juice extracted from it.
Warm and humid weather will make people thirsty and they will either turn to water or a refreshing drink. It has been noted that the younger generation of today rely more on carbonated beverages/aerated drinks or soft drinks to quench their thirst rather than natural juices.
Carbonated drinks (with high sugar) are unhealthy and can contribute to increased risks of obesity, heartburn, inferior health, reduced bone strength and can also cause tooth decay.
On the other hand, results of epidemiological studies have recommended consumption of fresh fruit or vegetable juices to improve general health.
Lately, health conscious consumers are continuously looking for better alternatives for aerated/soft drinks or the fresh produce-based preserved beverages/drinks. In this regard, coconut and sugarcane juice (being natural plant based products) hold high promise to fulfil the demands of health conscious consumers.
Sugar cane (of the grass family) is an important cash crops of the tropical, sub-tropical and Pacific regions. There are several local cultivars, wild and hybrid varieties of sugar cane available in the growing regions. Sugar cane is widely cultivated in South Pacific Islands, Asia (India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam), North Africa, and in North and South America (Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and the US).
The whole sugarcane plant has multiple uses. Some of these include; nutritious edible juice obtained from the stem or fibrous stalk, coarse sugar and jaggery obtained by processing the extracted juice, industrial ethanol obtained as a by-product of sugar production; and other by-products like molasses, bagasse, and the filter-cake.
Molasses is a viscous nutrient rich by-product obtained after refining sugarcane into sugar. It is mild sweet in taste and known to have health benefits such as overcoming menstruation, anaemia and stress-related problems.
Bagasse, the residual dry fibre after the juice is extracted, is used for producing paper and pulp. It is also used as a raw material for producing industrial chemicals, biofuel for boilers and agricultural mulch etc.
The filter-cake (residue after treatment of sugarcane juice via filtration) is high in moisture, phosphorus and organic matter and recommended as an organic fertiliser (compost) in sugarcane fields. After the harvest, the leaves and stem lying in the field can also be used as organic compost.
Sugarcane juice (yellow to green coloured) is obtained by pressing the stem/fibrous stalk between rollers (steel or iron) drums. This juice is either consumed directly or processed into refined sugar (white coloured), unrefined sugar (brown colour) or jaggery.
Jaggery is sweet, golden brown in colour and prepared by boiling fresh sugarcane juice to a thick concentrated slurry/product (without separation of molasses or the crystals).
Sugar cane; what it has
A mature sugarcane stalk contains approximately 13-16 per cent soluble sugars, 1-3 per cent non-sugars, 12-16 per cent fibre with the rest being water (up to 73 per cent).
Sugarcane juice is usually consumed fresh after pressing or can be added with little amount of ginger or lemon or mint juice to impart a unique taste/flavour. The juice is usually served chilled with ice or without ice.
Despite sugarcane juice being very sweet, it contains only 13 per cent of total sugar content, much less than commercial soft drinks. The juice is high in sucrose (and simple sugars) which can be easily absorbed in the body, resulting in an energy boost and contributing to the body's rapid rehydration.
Sugarcane juice contains trace amounts of vitamins (thiamine and riboflavin) and essential minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, potassium and magnesium. Owing to high iron content (19 per cent), in some of the growing regions, sugarcane juice is recommended for overcoming anaemia problems too.
The health benefits of sugarcane juice have been documented in the Indian traditional medicine system of Ayurveda.
In Ayurveda, regular consumption of sugarcane juice is recommended as a nourishing coolant, as an instant thirst quencher, a natural diuretic, aphrodisiac and a laxative to overcome constipation. It is also documented that sugarcane juice has natural healing properties and is recommended for treating of eye, kidney and liver disorders.
Recent reports have indicated that an alcohol-based waxy compound, policosanol, isolated from the leaves and stems of sugar cane is highly effective in reducing LDL (low-density lipoprotein) or the bad cholesterol in blood.
Compared with white sugar, though sugarcane juice contains much lower calories, it still can promote weight gain in inactive individuals. Nutritionally, sugarcane juice is devoid of any fat or bad cholesterol.
Antioxidant or the free radicals scavenging activity (owing to polyphenols and flavanols) and anticancer properties of sugarcane juice have been scientifically proven. Being a good alkalising component, regular consumption of the juice is linked with overcoming prostate and breast cancer cells.
Sugarcane juice has a flavonoid which is highly effective against cancer cells. Sugarcane juice also possesses antiviral properties and can help in treating seasonal flu, cold and throat pains.
Studies have shown sugarcane juice to protect liver against jaundice and can overcome blocked bile ducts (drinking at least 2-3 glass per day is recommended here). The regular drinking of sugarcane juice also leads to the removal of kidney stones.
Consumption of the juice is linked with overcoming frequent urinary disorders (auria and dysuria). Because of its low glycemic index, even diabetics can consume the juice in moderate amounts.
Freshly-prepared sugarcane juice has a wide array of active enzymes which help the body absorb vital nutrients. Regular consumption of sugarcane juice is also linked with reduction in bad cholesterol and triglyceride. Moderate daily intake (1-2 glass per day) of sugarcane juice can enhance metabolism, reduce body heat and help in maintaining healthy body weight.
Studies have shown sugarcane juice to increase the muscle glycogen resynthesis after a hard workout (eg in sportsperson) and help rehydration at a much faster rate compared with normal plain water or sports drinks.
However, as sugarcane juice is consumed fresh (without any pasteurisation), safety can be a major issue. Maintenance of hygienic standards is vital from "the farm up to the table".
Microbial contamination (mainly by Coliforms or Enterococci) can occur during different harvesting, transportation and juice preparation. Microbial contaminants can be present at the farm level because of contaminated irrigation water or presence of animal/rodents' faeces; contamination of the roller drum or juice crusher (if unwashed); dirty juice collecting utensils; use of contaminated ice or ice water which are often added to the juice or unhygienic practices, workers not washing their hands etc.
House flies which can contaminate the juice as these are usually carriers of human pathogenic micro-organisms.
However, educating those involved in production (farmers or vendors) and implementing appropriate standardised international hygienic protocols can effectively help in reducing microbial contaminants in sugarcane juice. Furthermore, appropriate care needs to be taken to ensure the sugarcane used to extract the juice are free of any pesticides, heavy metals or chemical residues.
While a healthy individual drinking should not have any problems, excessive consumption of sugarcane juice has been linked to dizziness, stomach upset, insomnia, and weight loss in certain individuals.
There are also many unanswered questions on whether pregnant women can drink sugarcane juice or not! It is always advisable to seek medical advice prior to using sugarcane juice to treat any ailments at home.
As it costs very little, minimal time is needed to extract the juice and continuous supply of the raw material, there is a tremendous marketing scope for exploiting the rich health benefits of sugarcane juice to benefit Fijian consumers.
Because it has sugars, long-term preservation of sugarcane juice might pose an issue. Hence, the use of modern processing and preservation techniques can be of much help to extend the shelf-life of freshly-extracted sugarcane juice.
Setting-up of a local sugarcane juice processing industry in Fiji cane belt can be very practical. Once health conscious consumers are informed, finding a wide local or export market will be much easier.
With a lot of available, fertile land growing hybrid varieties exclusively for juice extraction can be of much help. It is highly important that Fiji consumers support the local produce which directly or indirectly helps self-sufficiency and household food security in the region.
* Dr Rajeev Bhat is an associate professor and the head of FNU's Food Science Department. Views expressed are his and not of this newspaper or his employer. For queries, email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org