Posted by Kirsten Begg on Mar 12, 2009 Leave a comment

Aguapanela: The Truth

Every country has one: a national food they’ve been raised on, a matter of national pride, that every other nationality thinks must be the most disgusting food they’ve never tasted. In Australia it’s Vegemite. In Scotland it’s haggis. In Brazil it’s feijoada. In Colombia it’s aguapanela.

For the uninitiated, aguapanela is Colombian ‘tea’. It is made from panela, an unrefined sugarcane juice, which is boiled at a high temperature and then allowed to cristalize. Combine the crystalized sugarcane, hot water and lemon or milk and you have aguapanela. Listo.

It’s an acquired taste, one could say.

Panela is big business in Colombia. Even the UN thinks so. It’s grown in over more than 200,000 hectares of Colombian soil. Its production involves 350,000 people and it accounts for over 6% of the GDP. Colombians consume 32 kilos per year, per person.

You get the idea: they love the stuff.

Ask any Colombian worth their weight in sugarcane and they will expound to you the numerous nutritional benefits of aguapanela. Apparently it’s chock full of vitamins and minerals. It will give you oodles of energy and make you grow up big and strong. And what poor little sick Colombian niño with a sniffle hasn’t been nursed to health with a cup of aguapanela con limón, courtesy of his abuelita?

From the way Colombians revere the stuff, I was starting to wonder if it was some kind of Wonder Drink. I began to have visions of a Colombian version of Popeye chugging down a mug of aguapanela before leaping out of the nearest window, biceps bulging.

So I decided to do some research to see what all the hype was about.

Unfortunately, the more I read, the more my Colombian Popeye’s biceps began to shrivel. Aguapanela does contain Vitamin C, iron and calcium. However the quantities are so low that to consume the recommended daily intake of Vitamin C, for example, you would need to drink 26 cups of the stuff. Not even Colombians like it that much!

What it does have is energy. Not surprising really, considering it’s basically just sugar. It’s a relatively cheap and locally-produced consumable. The reality is that it’s actually a major source of calories for many of the poor in Colombia. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless it’s used as a major food source, in which case it can lead to malnutrition, especially in children.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Apparently an experiment done on rats showed that panela helps with respiratory problems associated with pollution! Maybe it’s all just propaganda promoted by panela exporters. Or maybe, just maybe, my Colombian Popeye can sit back, breathe easy and live to swig another aguapanela.