Panela: in sickness and in health


Thanks to the wonky weather we’ve been having lately, it seems like everyone is getting sick. It’s been a few weeks since I recovered from my scratchy throat and overall malaise but it was enought to knock me off my excercising, healthy eating and blogging wagon – or maybe that’s just a convenient excuse…

Fortunately Colombians have something of an elixir for colds and it’s called agua de panela or aguapanela (panela water). A very large percentage of Colombians, or at least Colombian mothers and grandmothers, put some water on to boil and prepare a steaming mug of aguapanela with loads of lemon juice the minute someone starts feeling sick.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Well there are conflicting stories about how good aguapanela actually is for you.

Is it just sugary water or does it contain minerals and vitamins as some claim?

Aguapanela is an extremely popular drink in several Central and South American countries especially Colombia and is the most common use for panela, a by-product of the sugar making process in the form of hardened, concentrated cane syrup. If you live elsewhere you might know it as raspadura, papelón, panocha, jaggery, etc.

Colombians, especially peasants or campesinos, rely on aguapanela as a main source of calories. All in all they consume approximately 32 kilos per year, per person. It’s an inexpensive, locally produced food and people say it has more vitamin C that orange juice and as many hydrating minerals as a sports drink. Of course, nowadays aguapanela is blamed for everything from cavities to diabetes and obesity.

From what I could find, aguapanela does contain some vitamin C, iron and calcium but not much. Tests performed on rats did show that aguapanela helps ease respiratory problems however, so that’s some good news. Plus, I can’t imagine that drinking aguapanela could be any worse than drinking Coke. Everything in moderation.

If you go shopping for panela in Colombia you’ll find blocks of it and for your convenience you can now find panela in powdered form or little cubes (like sugar cubes) that you drop in hot water and dissolve in just a few seconds. Doña Panela is one of the most commonly seen brands and it comes in a wide variety of flavors (wow, the colors in this picture from their website are a little shocking).

You can drink it hot or cold, with water or milk, and with additions of lemon juice, ginger or pretty much whatever you want. If you come across a Canelazo you’ll be having hot aguapanela with aguardiente and cinammon. And if you stop by a Juan Valdez Café and order a Tinto Campesino, guess what it will be sweetened with – panela!

You can cook with it too, of course. A lot of desserts are made with melao, a syrup made out of  panela. If you happen to be in Chia make plans to stop by Quesos La Especial (just outside of Bogotá – Address in Chia: Cra 1 Nª 7-11). They serve aguapanela there too but most importantly they make an incredible cuajada (a local fresh cheese). If you get there early, it’s still warm and soft – just eat it straight or smother slices of cuajada with warm melao.

No matter what its nutritional value may actually be, I am still convinced that panela/aguapanela does have some sort of healing properties even if they are psychological. And also, if my mom says its good for me, then it is.

Erica from My Colombian Recipes has a simple recipe for melao:

Melao de Panela

  • 1 cup grated panela
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cinammon stick
  • Pinch ground cloves

Place all the ingredients in a small pot and cook over medium-low heat until panela has dissolved and the mixture has reached a syrupy consistency.

Transfer to serving dish and cool.

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9 Responses to Panela: in sickness and in health

  1. ekamati108 says:

    This could be just the thing to kick my lingering cold. Thanks for the tip! And I love your blog. Keep writing:)

  2. Diana says:

    Thanks! I just had a thought pop into my head – post yoga oatmeal with grated panela on top. Could be pretty good…

  3. Pingback: Oh no, she’s blogging about blogging | Quiero agua.

  4. jorge says:

    it makes miracles,,makes the heart feel warm..just found a shop in melbourne,australia where they sell panela and it made my day,,if not my year!

  5. latinadesigner says:

    You just brought vibrant memories to my mind. What a beautiful way to let the world know about Colombian sage home remedies!! thank you.

  6. Clemencia says:

    I found this info in the internet. Panela is called Jaggery or Gur in India. Read on…..

    Product Features–
    Jaggery or “Gur” or whole sugar is a pure, wholesome, traditional, unrefined, whole sugar. It contains the natural goodness of minerals and vitamins inherently present in sugarcane juice & this crowns it as one of the most wholesome and healthy sugars in the world. It Mexico & South America, it is also known as panela.
    Why is it healthy?
    Jaggery, being a wholesome sugar, without doubt is rich in the vitally important mineral salts: 2.8 grams per 100 grams, that is to say 28 grams per kilogram, while only 300 milligrams per kilogram is found in refined sugar.
    Magnesium strengthens the nervous system & potassium is vital to conserve the acid balance in the cells and combats acids and acetone. Jaggery is very rich in iron, which, a composite of hemoglobin prevents anemia.
    Manufacture of sugar from cane juice employs a potpourri of chemicals as sulphur dioxide, lime, phosphoric acid, bleaching agents & viscosity reducers. Jaggery is processed the natural way & no chemicals are added at any stage of its processing.

    Jaggery or panela is often called the ‘medicinal sugar. So much so, you can become an emergency doctor with Jaggery. It is also very useful in health problems like –
    Dry Cough, Cough with Sputum , Indigestion, Constipation

    Ancient medical scriptures dating back to 2500 years state how it purifies the blood, prevents rheumatic afflictions and disorders of bile and possesses nutritive properties of high order.
    (Sushruta Samhita, Chapter 45, sloka 146)

    The preventive action of jaggery on smoke-induced lung lesions suggest the potential of jaggery as protective agent for workers in dusty and smoky environments- paper presented by scientists of Industrial Toxicology Research Centre at a Workshop held in Lyon, France.

    [Environ Health Perspect, 102(Suppl 6): 211-214 (1994)]

    According to an experiment, Turbinado Sugar treated rats showed enhanced translocation of coal particles from lungs to tracheobronchial lymph nodes.
    Hence, it fights pollution too! No wonder Jaggery is regularly consumed by thousands of industrial workers / traffic policemen who are exposed to higher levels of pollution. It helps them breathe easier and counter pollution naturally.
    Manufacture Process–
    Raw sugarcane juice is slowly simmered in pans & the water is progressively evaporated. Clarification is done using natural vegetable clarificants. Scooping the boiling juice from one pan to another until the liquid starts to go hard carries out this process. The complete process is hygienic, untouched by hands, and most importantly….100% chemical-free!

  7. Pingback: The 7 Links Challenge: A look back at Bogotá Eats & Drinks | Bogotá Eats + Drinks

  8. Pingback: Cold? Have a steaming cup of aguapanela « Summer Solstice Musings

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