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What is Panela?

What is Panela?

Panela is pure dried sugar cane juice. Given the high sugar content of cane juice it is therefore essentially non-refined cane sugar, retaining the many additional constituents of cane juice, principally minerals, but also vitamins and other trace substances, many still unknown. Depending on its manufacturing process it is either presented in solid or granulated form.

Panela is a traditional food produced and consumed in practically all tropical and subtropical regions since the introduction of sugar cane growing. It is classified by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as non-centrifugal sugar and has many different names world wide.

The chemical composition of panela depends on the cane variety used, the soils on which it was grown, the fertilization applied and on certain process characteristics. The range of the contents of its most important constituents, compiled from several studies, is presented in the following table.

Table 1
General composition of panela
Content Value range
Carbohydrate, % 83 – 95
Sucrose 72 – 14
Reducing sugar 3 – 14
Minerals, % 0.6 – 3
Calcium 0.04 – 0.36
Chloride 0.2 – 0.34
Phosphorus 0.03 – 0.22
Potassium 0.1 – 0.16
Sodium 0.006 – 0.03
Iron 0.0025 – 0.020
Zink 0.002 – 0.0025
Magnesium 0.008 – 0.136
Cooper 0.007 – 0.010
Cobalt, nickel and molybdenum 0.001 – 0.008
Protein % 0.35 – 0.40
Nonprotein nitrogen (mg/100 g) 19.6 – 42.9
Protein nitrogen (mg/100 g) 13.7 – 17.6
Vitamins mg/100 g
Thiamin 0.018 – 0.030
Riboflavin 0.042 – 0.07
Nicotinic acid 3.92 – 4.50
Vitamin C 5.2 – 30
Carotene, ug/100g 155 – 168
Phenolics, mg/100 g 280 – 320
Fat, wax, pectin and organic acids, % 0.10 – 0.60
Moisture, % 3.9 – 7.2

The basic manufacture process of panela involves juice extraction, physical elimination of impurities and clarification of the juice, evaporation of the water content of the juice, crystallization, eventually drying and packaging. The cane juice is generally extracted by mechanical processes and allowed to settle so to eliminate solid impurities. Clarification is carried out by adding vegetable matter to coagulate the particulates, which come to the surface during boiling and are skimmed off, as well as by adding lime to improve crystallization. In some of the larger factories the juice is often filtered and chemically clarified.

Most of panela is produced in small scale on-farm facilities, processing its own sugar cane with traditional technology. Production is small, inefficient and quality uneven. Some countries have government programs to enhance panela production through introduction of better technology to reduce energy use and improve quality, enforcement of quality standards and marketing support.

In some countries like India, Colombia, Brazil and Costa Rica a larger scale panela industry exists, processing cane from other farmers with improved technology, centered on more efficient energy use and better processing to obtain economies of scale and homogeneous quality.

Nutritional and health advantages of panela

Panela is believed to have many nutritional and health advantages in the countries with a tradition of its consumption. Scientific research has been confirming significant positive health effects of NCS and its precursor products. A recent paper (2012) has identified 46 academic publications which report some health effect. The highest frequency is immunological effects (26%), followed by anti-toxicity and cytoprotective effects (22%), anticariogenic effects (15%) and diabetes and hypertension effects (11%) (Health Effects of Non-Centrifugal Sugar (NCS): A Review. Walter R. Jaffe.Sugar Tech DOI 10.1007/s12355-012-0145-1).

Although yet no proof of the causes of these broad effects exists, several investigations point towards its antioxidant properties as a strong possibility. Table 2 presents the antioxidant activity of concentrated cane juice, which can be considered basically equivalent with panela, compared with other high antioxidant sources, expressed in ORAC (Oxygen Radical Adsorbance Capacity), a quantitative method that increasingly has become a standard, although not unique, method for measuring it.

Table 2
Antioxidant capacity (ORAC) of selected foods
Food “Whole ORAC
(umoleTE x 100 gr)”
Spices, basil, dried 67,553 USDA, 2007
Spices, cinnamon, ground 267,536 USDA, 2007
Spices, oregano, dried 200,129 USDA, 2007
Chocolate, dutched powder 40,200 USDA, 2007
Cocoa, dry powder, unsweetened 80,933 USDA, 2007
Conc. sugar cane raw juice (Panela) 26,400 Saska and Chou, 2002
Nuts, walnut, english 13,541 USDA, 2007
Nuts, almonds 4,454 USDA, 2007
Raspberries, raw 4,882 USDA, 2007
Blackberries, raw 5,347 USDA, 2007
Blueberries, raw 6,552 USDA, 2007

This table shows that panela compares very favorably with good antioxidant sources such as berries and nuts. It has lower levels than some spices, cocoa and chocolate, but its nutritional effects could be much more important than these foods, given that as a sweetener it has mass consumption potential.