*Dr. Kaushik Ramakrishnan
The Soma is postulated to be a yet unidentified plant, popular in the Indo-Persian civilizations for the preparation of a beverage, that provides vitality, energy, and strength. Digging a little deeper into the research, it turns out that the Soma could potentially be a group of plants, all leading to the common purpose listed above.
Various herbs – Ephedra, Sarcostemma, some psychedelic mushrooms like Amanita and Psilocybene, and many other candidates have been proposed and what intrigued me was the reference to Saccharum species in this list.
Early IVC and Persian civilizations could have had sugar like substances in limited quantities, arising out of local Saccharum/sugar grasses. Modern sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) with high yields of sugar, originated in the new world. Hence, the instant energy giving properties enabled the addition of the local sugar grasses to the Soma concoction, while the relative rarity gave it an aura of preciousness reflected in the Rig Veda and Avesta texts. Other sweetening agents popular in the ancient time were honey and fruit/fruit juices, all rich in fructose with a lower glycemic response.
The plant material was ground between two heavy stones, the resulting juice collected, filtered, and added to milk/curds before being consumed. Similar methods to extract the juice of the sugarcane is still practiced in India widely. Other herbs have relatively smaller implements for extraction of the juices. Hence sugar grasses could possibly be the bulk of the Soma concoction. Mixing sugar with curds along with the addition of many flavoring substances creates our modern yogurts, the ancient analog of which could possibly also have contained entheogenic herbs.
Fermented dairy is a dietary staple in the Indo-Persian region. Consumed in various forms, my meal is never complete without a serving of curd rice, and people from Bengal will swear by Mishti Doi for dessert.
Raw sugarcane juice, even from the modern officinarum species is rich in antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins. It provides calories as well as nutrition. Wild/native sugar grasses could be considered similar or better in providing nutrition with calories.
If I have by now managed to convince you that sugar in some form/source was a precious resource, we can start addressing the issue of the problems that modern society has with sugar.
The easiest point to address is purity. As a firm believer in synergistic activity of various components in a food product to obtain the desired result, white crystalline sugar is an abhorrent product. While it is considered “natural”, the number of physical and chemical processes involved in manufacture of white sugar makes it anything but natural. I spent a few years during my doctoral research exploring the beneficial effect of stevia polyphenols in free radical scavenging activity, and the matrices in which the presence of such polyphenols created acceptable organoleptic properties. Stevia has also gone the path of sugar and is a highly refined ingredient. The food industry has hitherto been unable to work with crude, even though standardized, extracts. The “clean label” trend has spurred interest in this direction over the past couple of years. The question therefore to the food/ingredient industry is, instead of going forward to find new sources of sweetness, should we be looking towards the past and working with traditional sources like sugarcane/stevia, as the native cultures originally did, and adapt them to modern methods of producing packaged food and beverage? I have tried to list the benefits, the downside being the necessity for a completely different approach to formulations.
The second question is that of the matrix in which sweetness is required. Not all sugar alternatives work well in all matrices. The holy grail of the ideal sweetener, which we have confirmed over many years of discussion with food industry colleagues is, “sugar like without the calories”. Taking a leaf out of the ancients, sugar and like substances were not used in all products. Honey and other sweeteners were also used widely. The overwhelming dependence on sugar for providing sweetness in all matrices has become the problem in modern societies. Sweetness from a single source and the lack of will to experiment with other sources of sweetness has taken its toll, with sugar getting the bad rap among consumers and governments rushing to put in place sugar control regulations. Our analysis based on questions raised by clients has always moved in the direction of which alternate sweetener can replace sugar in which matrix, by region. By changing that perspective ever so slightly, and asking, which matrix requires sweetness, and which is the ideal ingredient/source to provide this sweetness, we can move away from the overwhelming focus on sugar.
And for the final point to be made about sugar reduction and the search for alternatives, I must once again dig into the past. “Alavukku meerinal amudhamum nanju” is an aphorism in Tamil (my native tongue) meaning “in excess, even nectar becomes poison”. The world became calorie positive around the middle of the current decade. A large proportion of this excess came from sugar. Hence the problem arises from excessive consumption of a product that is processed industrially to remove all other nutrients and used indiscriminately in all matrices. The advice of my pediatrician when my baby girl was born was to moderate sugars/sweet foods given to the baby since dependence starts at an early age and leads to lifestyle conditions later. It is not the fault of the baby of course, since we are genetically hardwired to prefer sweet foods. Most sweet foods in nature are also calorie dense. Hence moderation in consumption as an individual choice is difficult to impose. If the food industry seeks to be viewed as a solution, and not the source of the problem, we will need to address the first two questions I raise with all seriousness and sincerity.
In the meantime, Giract has launched a market research study on allulose which promises a lot and will hopefully deliver. Our current research on allulose seeks to understand the applicability of allulose as a sugar replacer in multiple food matrices across Asia, Europe, North and South America.
*Project Manager, Giract