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The sugar palms of Angkor Wat August 2nd, 2015 by

Archaeologists and zealous groundskeepers have cut many ancient sites down to the bare stones, but with the green grounds and palm trees in Angkor Wat one can almost imagine what the place must have looked like when people lived there.

Archaeologists extract information on plant use through various methods, such as analyzing bas-reliefs and wall paintings (see our earlier blog on Egyptian corn). They analyze pollen and identify plant remains found in soil, comparing what they find with information on useful plants from history books and ethnographic accounts of contemporary people.

Upon reading The Kingdom and People of Siam, written by Sir James Bowring in 1857, the French naturalist and explorer Henry Mouhot decided to undertake an expedition to Indochina and obtained financial support from the Royal Geographical Society and the Zoological Society of London. While the 31-year old professor made accurate drawings of the site, he wrongly assumed that the site was built by an earlier civilization than the Khmer, while in fact the very same civilization which built Angkor was still living there.

In the late 1850s, the majestic sugar palm (Borassus flabellifer) was thriving at Angkor Wat. This may be one reason why all of Mouhot’s line drawings, which depicted the temple from various angles, showed the sugar palm that can still be seen at the complex today.

The Khmer people have probably grown the sugar palm at the site around Angkor Wat since ancient times, in an unbroken tradition. Although many societies have lived without sugar, according to Sidney Mintz, the anthropologist of sugar, no people has ever willingly given up sugar after having tasted it.

While sugar cane and sugar beets dominate the lucrative sweetener market, many trees also have economic value as source of sugar. In many developing countries various palm trees are an important source of sugar for local people. Palm sugars are produced by either tapping the sap from the inflorescence of the tree or by tapping the tree trunk itself by making slits in the bark (the way rubber is tapped) and letting the sweet juice ooze into a pot. The juice is boiled down into a syrup, which is then sold as is, or allowed to crystallize into various shapes and sizes.

“We continuously look for creative ways to improve our sweeteners and starches, and biochemical processes occurring in nature are an important source of inspiration,” says Anthony DeLio, Chief Innovation Officer of Ingredion, which provides ingredients for the food, feed, beverage, brewing, and pharmaceutical industries.

Demand for palm sugars may be rising rapidly due to changes in global market economies and food habits. Sugars from palm trees are not refined and overly processed like white sugar. They are richer in nutrients. Sugars from trees are also more slowly absorbed by the blood so they don’t put stress on the pancreas to produce large amounts of insulin to keep blood sugars down.

When working and living in Bangladesh in the early 2000s, I saw people harvesting juice from the “khejur gach” or wild date palm (Phoenix sylvestris). Local vendors sell chunks of the crystallized blocks of the sugary “gur”, which comes in various yellowish- brown shades. People traditionally use un-refined sugars to make indigenous sweet dishes, such as paesh (rice boiled in milk with cardamom, nuts and raisins) and sandesh (a dessert made with paneer and condensed milk). Gur is also used in different types of cakes or pithas, and different types of snacks, such as tiler khaja (a treat made of sesame seeds and sugar), naru (balls made from coconut, milk and sugar). The desired unique flavor of each of these foods is part of the rich Bengali culture.

If demand for palm sugars rises, sustainably increasing the yields of these palm trees will require a better understanding of the best ways to manage them; and learning from smallholder farmers will be crucial.

White sugar, high fructose corn syrup and other addictive sweeteners have contributed to all sorts of problems like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A shift towards healthier sugars is likely to continue, but it will be important for manufacturers not to overstate their benefits.

Some governments are starting to think of ways to curb sugar abuse. For example, last week the Belgian government agreed to introduce a sugar tax. Whether this will lead to more healthy food habits remains to be seen. Remembering successful campaigns in the past to curb tobacco use, communication and educating consumers will be as crucial as raising the price of sugar.

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