When the present industrial sweetener challenge is looking for a safe and healthier compound, sugar percentage in neera opens up a wide opportunity to produce palm sugar crystals from neera, write Rifna E J and R. Mahendran. Neera can be converted into a number of value-added products like Palm syrup, Palm jaggery, Palm sugar granules, and other by-products.


Ayurveda explains six tastes through which every food can be categorized as sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent. However, out of all the sensation of the tongue, sweetness stands to be the premier one with a high sensory threshold that even infants express liking for high sugar concentrations and favor solutions that are sweeter. The sweet taste naturally increases moisture, and weight in the body. For this reason, it is demonstrated as an excellent basis for building the body’s six vital tissues of plasma, muscles, bone marrow, blood, fat and reproductive fluids. Traditionally, sugar was produced from sugar cane stems, which humans have been using as a source of sweetener for thousands of years. And, table sugar is being used as sucrose which is refined and processed cane sugar is the main agent that is used for sweetening the majority of what we eat and have become a vital element of everyday life.

Researchers have proved that consuming an excess of this simple sugar daily causes numerous health problems. Therefore, in this sweetener challenge, the industries and consumers are seeking for a natural, safe, reduced-calorie and nutritious compound that creates the taste sensation of sugar when used in foods. Though from then, the number of sweeteners are increasingly popular as a replacement for sugar from plant and other natural sources. However, in this scenario, the latest to add popularity can be the sugar prepared from heat-treating the sap called neera from the inflorescence of the coconut tree and palmyra palm tree.

Neera is a transparent sweet juice with a pleasant aroma, delicious taste and a good flavor. It is a natural product tapped from the unopened flower buds of palm trees. Neera is nutritious, high in sugars, and also consists of vitamins like ascorbic acid, B complex, essential amino acids, minerals and salts. Regards to its therapeutic value, it is accepted among the rural and urban population, especially in Gujarat, Orissa, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. As a natural and residue-free drink, it builds up the body and keeps it cool, improving digestion and appetite. Sucrose, probably still the sugar used most frequently in food products, is manufactured from either the sugarcane stems or the sugar beet. Neera sap contains about 0.5% glucose, 1.5% fructose, 16% sucrose hence it can be used as an improved alternative to sweeteners available in the current market. Besides its direct consumption as a health beverage, neera can be converted into a number of value-added products like Palm syrup, Palm jaggery, Palm sugar granules and other by-products are produced by heating fresh neera and concentrating it. Palm sap products are delicious, sweet and give mineral salt too. Hence according to Mahatma Gandhi, the processing of neera was a way of banishing poverty from our land; an antidote to poverty. So, when the present industrial sweetener challenge is looking for a safe and healthier compound, sugar percentage in neera opens up a wide opportunity to produce palm sugar crystals from neera which can supplement both nutrients and low calories, unlike cane sugar which supplies only calories.

In order to know the ideology of crystallization processes, it is significant to develop some fundamental principles regarding phase equilibrium and the structure of the solution. It is the physicochemical nature of the solution that drives the crystallization processes; thus, these properties must be understood in order to fully comprehend the development and growth of crystals. In processing neera sugar crystals from palm neera initially a supersaturated sugar solution is created by heating till an optimum level of temperature and TSS, then the solution is kept for cooling. The solution starts to crystallize once the driving force exceeds the energy barrier to nucleation1. Rate of crystallization also depends upon the parameters such as agitation rate, temperature, impurities and level of additives if added.

Coconut Neera Sugar Crystals

Palms are the oldest flowering plants in the world. Among the major five economic palms, coconut produces inflorescences all through the year and so can be tapped. It is one of the vital members of palm species and is a key part of the daily diet of people. In India, it is called ‘tree of heaven’, ‘tree of life’, since all part of the palm has got some religious and cultural significance2. Like the fruit, trunk and leaves of coconut, the flower of the coconut produces a nectar type sugar-containing liquid which is non-alcoholic and nutritious, known as coconut neera. This appetizing health drink which is used in Ayurveda and another system of medicines is loaded with minerals, vitamins and amino acids.

Understanding the potential for value addition, employment creation and better income returns to the coconut farmers from coconut neera, diversified value-added products like neera golden syrup, neera jaggery, neera cookies, neera cake etc have been prepared and are also used for export to other countries around the world. However, it was contradictory to study that though sugar crystals are produced from diverse sources like sugar cane, beetroot, agave, stevia and a variety of other plant and enzymatic sources, coconut neera which consists of 10.08-16.5g/100ml of total sugar and 12.3-17.4g/100ml of sucrose and other important minerals and nutrients have not been explored to produce coconut neera sugar crystals. So, research work was carried out for crystallization of sugar crystals present in coconut neera at IIFPT. The shape of sugar, crystallized out from neera possessed octahedron geometry and proved to be a good source of vitamins, minerals and nutrients with less calorific and glycemic value compared to commercially available sugar crystals. The process of crystal formation and image of the sugar crystals developed have been illustrated in Figure 1 and Figure 2.

sugar crystals from coconut neera

Fig 1: Diagram illustrating the development of coconut sugar crystals from coconut neera

Palmyrah Neera Sugar Crystals

India is one of the countries blessed with wealthy growth of palms, is grown in the states of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Palmyrah palm tree has abundant uses and almost all part of the tree has some kind of utility. Palm produces a sweet sap flowing from the inflorescence, neera which is the most essential product of palmyrah palm economically. The sweet and pleasant tasting juice consist of 10-15 % sugar content and a modest amount of iron, phosphorus, thiamine an important source of vitamin C3. The nutritional composition of sugarcane juice, palmyrah palm neera and coconut neera have been explained in table 1. It was said that the palmyrah palm tree also provides immeasurable worth to the people of the country. But it was identified that the raw utilization of palm products did not increase the income of people to expected levels. People turned to process and make value-added products from palm neera in hope of making a better living. Thus, a number of commodities like palm jaggery, palm sugar powder, palm sugar chocolates were introduced.

crystals formed from crystallization of neera

Fig 2: The octahedron shaped, monoclinic system crystals formed from crystallization of neera

Understanding the significance of crystalline structure of food and as a solution for nutrient and healthy sugar, palm candies were developed. It served as a sweetener in tea, beverages and in several food preparations. Though operations involved in crystal preparation was initial cleaning to strain out impurities, followed by boiling of neera to form a syrup-like consistency of TSS value around 75-77° brix and it takes around 41 days or more for the syrup to undergo the process of crystallization. But a qualitative test of formed crystals proved that palmyrah neera crystals were highly nutritious than crude sugar comprising of 0.19% fat, 3.2% of total minerals, 0.86% of calcium, 0.05% of phosphorus, 11mg of iron and 0.77mg of copper per 100g of crystal samples4.

The consumption of palmyrah neera crystals provides multiple health benefits to patients suffering from diabetes due to its low GI value and serves as the best sugar source in curing asthma, anemia, high blood pressure, and heart disease. The major constraints in the preparation of neera sugar crystals include low yield of neera from the palm tree, difficulty in collecting sap which reduces the production rate and the requirement of sudden heat treatment that has to be induced to the collected sap to prevent the fermentation of neera into potent sly grog. The unawareness among the consumers on the health benefits of palmyrah neera crystals also reduces its market value. However, if measures are taken to increase the production and supply of this new healthy sugar crystal from palm sap it will serve as the best replacement to today’s consumers and industries who are in the great search for healthy, safe, and natural sugar.

Nutritional composition of sugarcane juice, palmyrah palm neera, coconut neera

Table 1: Nutritional composition of sugarcane juice, palmyrah palm neera, coconut neera

Neera Sugar Industry – Key to Rural Economy

During the freedom struggle, The Father of our Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, stated his fortitude to implement the palm industrial activities in an organized way. With the major concentration in tropical countries, the family of palm constitutes nearly 1,100 species, scattered over the world, however of this only nine species yield sweet juice known as Neera. It has been studied from a survey that about lakhs of palmyrah palm and coconut trees cultivated in our state, only around 20 percentage trees are being exploited for the production of neera and other value-added products from neera.

In this world when industries are facing the big sweetener challenge the studies have proven that the best and natural remedy that can meet today’s people demand of sugar can be the crystals produced from the sap of palm trees. Thus, neera can be turned to a jackpot for neera processors and consumers if the appropriate stage of concentration and suitable crystallization techniques are developed.

The strength to develop novel and indigenous technologies to develop value-added products like crystals would be a boost to the local economy. The nutritive value analyzes reports from the different national laboratories on neera and its value-added products established that it is a rich source of carbohydrate, minerals, protein, and iron than sugar cane products. Its medicinal values, also make it a major ingredient in ayurvedic medicines. Thus, in today’s world where consumers are highly health-conscious and prefer the quality product, with no doubt it can be assured that neera sugar crystals which supplement low calories and high nutrients to consumers could be an appropriate replacement to the cane sugar and other artificial sweeteners for the food and pharmaceutical industries.

It is very important to understand that about more than half of the rural population are earning their livelihood from the palm industry sector. If all our efforts are made to exploit all the existing palm trees for maximum extraction of neera and in crystallization of neera sugar, in addition to creating a safe, natural and healthy solution to the sweetener challenge it will also employ about lakhs of unemployed poor artisans to earn their livelihood, thereby helping a significant improvement in the socio-economic conditions of people living in poverty in rural and tribal communities.

References

  1. Richard, W., Hartel, & Shastry, V. (1991). Sugar crystallization in food products. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 30 (1), 49-112.
  2. Rangaswami, G. (1977). Palm tree crops in India. Outlook-on-Agriculture. 9 (4), 167–173.
  3. Theivendirarajah, K., & Chrystopher, R. K. (1986). Chemical analysis of palmyrah palm Borassus flabellifer L. wine (toddy). Journal of Science.
  4. Jansz, E. R., Wickremasekara, N., & Sumuduni, K. A. (2002). A review of the chemistry and biochemistry of seed shoot flour and fruit pulp of the palmyrah palm (Borassus flabellifer L). Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka, 30, 1-2.