Jaggery (or unrefined cane sugar) is a product that pretty much everyone in India consumes quite often in some form or the other. It’s used either as a sweetener in traditional Indian desserts (some types of payasam come to mind), or as a dessert by itself. It is also often touted as a healthier replacement for sugar because people believe that, unlike refined sugar, it is natural and unprocessed. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Jaggery, just like refined sugar has a number of safety issues, ranging from all the problems associated with high sugar consumption, to adulteration. Just like sugar, jaggery can cause lifestyle diseases if consumed excessively.
According to a 2017 report in the Hindu, jaggery samples collected from Karnataka were found to contain chemicals like calcium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulphite, artificial food colouring, etc., which were used in the manufacturing process. The article added that the reason behind using these chemicals was to ensure that the jaggery ended up having a light golden colour and a firm texture. In fact, the FSSAI had warned manufacturers against adulterating jaggery as early as 2014. NDTV has also published an article that talks about how people can identify whether or not the jaggery they are buying is pure. These methods include simple stuff like tasting to see whether it tastes salty or bitter, checking for crystals on the jaggery and some basic chemical tests for added colour.
Unfortunately, physical, or even chemical contamination, are not the biggest safety issues with jaggery. The biggest problem with jaggery is the misplaced belief that it is a healthier and safer replacement for sugar. This is just not true. Both jaggery and sugar contain high amounts of sucrose (jaggery is about 70% sucrose) and the body processes sucrose in the same manner, irrespective of the source. Therefore, in the long run, replacing sugar with jaggery will not lower the risk of high sugar consumption related lifestyle diseases. In fact, I would say that products like jaggery and honey are less safe than sugar because people may consume them in larger quantities in the mistaken belief that they are safe and healthy, irrespective of how much is consumed.
The misconception about jaggery being a safer replacement for sugar is a serious problem, especially in India where food safety awareness is generally on the lower side. People need to realize that consuming sweeteners like jaggery and honey excessively is just as likely to lead to lifestyle diseases like obesity and diabetes.