Did you know that almost 80% of sugar comes from sugar cane? Many of us cannot imagine our coffee, tea and cheerios without a hefty helping of this staple sweetener. However, can you get the same benefits from the source and eat the sugar cane right off the stalk?
Sugarcane juice is a delicious addition to cocktails and recipes or you can drink it straight. However, you should never eat the pulp of the sugar cane. This roughage can be very hard on the digestive system, causing stomach upset and even a blockage.
That does not mean that you cannot use the stalk when preparing food though! Suck the juice right out of the stem or create skewers and cocktail stir sticks with this sweet plant!
From Stalk To Table
Sugar cane starts as stalks of grass that have a similar appearance to bamboo. However, they are not hollow, but instead, a thick cylinder of fibrous material that houses a deliciously refreshing juice! Once harvested, this juice is extracted with the help of a mechanical press.
This juice will then go through a handful of purification and filtering processes.
Finally, the last step is crystallization. This is the form of sugar that we are most accustomed to seeing in stores.
Interestingly enough, while “refined sugar is the primary product of sugarcane juice…during its processing, various other valuable products are also obtained in an unrefined form, such as, brown sugar, molasses, and jaggery [(unrefined cane sugar)].”
There are two things to note though. First, while obtaining sugar is much more convenient in those snow colored granules, the processing removes most of the beneficial qualities of this plant. Second, while you would assume that because sugar comes from sugarcane that you can eat it in its original form, you would be wrong.
You cannot eat sugar cane whole. This is because the pulp is very tough and if you were to eat even moderate quantities, you might experience constipation or even an intestinal obstruction. In fact, the dry fibrous residue that remains after the extraction of the juice, otherwise known as bagasse, is actually used to make fuel for cars.
How To Use Sugar Cane
You cannot eat sugar cane in its original state. What you can do is use the stem while cooking and the juice is ideal for virtually any recipe! Best of all, it is a much healthier and more natural sweetener.
Sugar Cane Juice
Whether you want to suck the juice directly from the stem or juice the center portion of the stalk, you can drink the sugar cane juice without any further processing. First, you must cut off the hardened ends and peel off the outer layer.
Once the interior white flesh is visible, cut the stalk into small bite size pieces. Then, you can choose to either bite down and extract the juice orally or you can carefully pop the pieces into a juicer to give you a more convenient cup of this sugary drink. Drinking from a glass or can is the ideal method of consumption for those with braces and TMJ issues.
IMPORTANT NOTES: Remember to discard the pulp once you have sucked out the juice. Additionally, if you decide to juice the pieces, know that the fibers are very brittle. Thus, make sure that the juicer remains covered, otherwise you will have debris shooting out at you!
Sugar Cane Skewers
For those hoping to utilize this natural sweetener while cooking, consider using the sugar cane as a barbecue skewer! Instead of cutting it into pieces, slice the stem longways into quarters. Then, sharpen the ends.
Once this is complete, slide on some chicken, fish or pork and throw the kabobs on the grill! Throughout the cooking process, the sweet juice of the sugar cane will slowly seep into the meat. This makes it the perfect pairing to pineapple based (and other sweet) dishes that you plan to eat. Furthermore, create fruit skewers and heighten the flavor of your healthy dessert!
Sugar Cane Cocktail Garnish
Those cute umbrellas should be a thing of the past! Instead of sharpening your skewers, you can also leave the ends blunt. This creates a stir stick that doubles as a slow release sweetener! Add this to cocktails, lemonade or even iced tea!
Additionally, there are companies that make straws out of the normally discarded sugarcane fibers. This is an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic products. However, it is not edible.
While you cannot eat the sugar cane in its raw form, there are obviously some great uses for this simple piece of produce.
Proper Storage & Safety
It should come as no surprise that there is a limited shelf life to your sugar cane. According to the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, “stalks can be stored under cool, moist conditions for about two weeks, though they may dry slightly. For longer storage, dipping the cut piece in hot paraffin helps to retard moisture loss.
The cut surface of the cane piece will often turn red and develop an off-flavor if stored for longer than 7 to 10 days.”
Moreover, make sure to refrigerate this produce at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or less. This will allow for the stalk to stay fresh for five days. Vacuum pack the produce for longer storage times.
In this case, store them below 35.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, you can store the juice in the fridge for up to three weeks.
You can extend this to three months in the freezer!
Additionally, it is important to note that the longer you store the sugar cane, the less juice there will be to extract. “During storage, sucrose levels decline and reducing sugars increase, along with an increase in alcohol content. […] Juice yield can be 70% when freshly harvested then declines after harvest due to dehydration.”
Safety Of The Produce
Most importantly, while we all want to avoid waste, sometimes it is better to err on the side of caution. CNN Health reports that “the sugar cane crop itself is not harmful to eat, but leave it for too long, and its impact won’t be very sweet. Eating moldy or dated sugar cane comes with a risk of poisoning courtesy of a common fungus that grows on the plant when it’s stored for more than a few months.
The fungus, called artbrinium, produces toxins that can cause vomiting, staring to one side, convulsions, spasms and coma, according to the World Health Organization.” Additionally, there are other types of fungus that can cause red rot, which produces similar symptoms.
Therefore, always inspect the sugar cane plant before you eat it.
How To Select Fresh Sugar Cane
While perusing the produce section at the grocery store, you want to select the freshest sugar cane. This will ensure that it will have a longer shelf life. Thus, look for green or yellow stalks that are heavy in weight, but thin in appearance.
These options will produce the most juice.
Moreover, small red sections are okay. However, make sure to avoid pieces that have large red or brown spots as well as excessive dry patches. Lastly, the more space there is between the joints (or the internode length), the easier it will be to peel and chop the sugarcane.
Health Benefits Of Sugar Cane
Unlike processed cane sugar, sugar cane juice has a myriad of health benefits! Not only is it brimming with antioxidants, but “sugarcane juice [also] regulates natural immunity of host cells against different microbial infections such as viral, bacterial, and protozoan having effects on the levels of macrophages, neutrophils, and natural killer cells”.
Residents of Southeast Asia use it to treat conditions such as jaundice, urinary tract infections and inflammation. Additionally, “sugarcane juice has a glycemic index of 43, which, according to the American Diabetes Association, makes sugarcane a low-glycemic food. […] The reason sugarcane has a low glycemic index is because sugars derived from plants are processed in your liver, not your small intestine.
This means that the sugars from sugarcane — fructose and glucose — are more slowly absorbed than sucrose. [This, in turn, reduces] the likelihood of blood sugar level spikes.”
Moreover, research shows that “it is also loaded with vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, manganese, and iron. [It also has] a complete profile of essential amino-acids that help burn fat and build muscle.”
Needless to say, if you choose to eat the products of sugar cane, you will reap some major rewards! This is especially true for women who are pregnant. It can help with constipation, morning sickness and even boost immunity.
However, you should not consume sugarcane if you have been diagnosed with gestational diabetes.
Sugar cane is clearly one of the premiere sweeteners, battling for the top spot against the ever popular honey, but there are a few other things to consider before you start incorporating this delicious juice into everything you eat. First, sugarcane juice contains more calories than a spoonful of the sugar that it creates. Second, just like with all sugary products, moderation is key.
Harvard researchers note that “the AHA suggests an added-sugar limit of no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of sugar) for most women and no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar) for most men.” Keep in mind that just 3.5 ounces of sugar cane juice contains 73 grams of sugar, so try to eat it sparingly. Otherwise, you risk weight gain and the possibility of developing type 2 diabetes.
This sweet and syrupy concoction is a favorite in Asian cultures, and therefore, to some of their wildlife as well. Elephants and pandas have a sweet tooth too! Sugar cane is a sweetener that will help with more than just the craving for a sugary treat to eat.
It will bring you surprising health benefits too! However, those who are on the paleo and keto diets need to steer clear. The Keto Diet cuts out sugar, which this product clearly is filled with, and according to the Paleo Foundation, “while sugar cane juice extracted with minimal processing meets the basic tenets of the Paleo Diet, the Paleo Community is most likely to respond with extreme opposition to its inclusion in the Paleo Diet”.
Heidi is a wife, mother, Newfie owner, writer and Meteorologist. She was born and raised in Texas and has worked in the broadcast industry for over a decade.