It is a flavoursome choice for sweetening anything but is panela healthier than sugar? The answer is yes, but not by much.
To understand why, first we must think about what sugar is. Sugar is the name we give to a family of sweet-tasting chemicals which are extracted from plants like sugar cane, sugar beet, corn, and sugar maple. Examples are sucrose, fructose, and glucose. In pure form, these chemicals form colourless or white crystals when not dissolved in water.
In the “olden” days (before the mid-19th century), almost all sugar sold was brown or black because it was not pure. Back then, when people said “sugar”, they meant brown sugar.
The brown/black colour comes from all the non-sugar parts of the plant, combined with sugar to form a sticky, thick syrup called molasses. Molasses has a distinct earthy/burnt/bitter taste which flavours anything it is added to.
Nowadays, we have the technology to separate the sugar from the molasses effectively and efficiently, using a centrifuge. Most of the sugar sold today is refined centrifugal sugar, produced at vast industrial scale.
A centrifuge is a machine which spins a pre-processed sugar-molasses solution fast enough so that pure sugar crystals are separated from the molasses. The sugar crystals are collected and further refined to produce common white sugar, a singular product which is sold as 99.5% pure sugar.
This high purity is a big reason for sugar’s bad reputation for being a massive source of “empty calories” because, besides calories, there is practically no other nutritional value. Less-pure brown sugar has more nutritional value because it includes molasses along with the sugar.
Panela is sugar
The word “panela” is simply the name given to the type of sugar made in some parts of South America. In other parts of South America, this same sugar is called rapadura, chancaca, atado dulce, or piloncillo. Panela has been made in the region for about 500 years, and it continues to be made the same way to this day.
Panela imported from South America is cane sugar (sucrose), just as the normal white and brown sugar grown and sold in Australia is. The key difference between panela and regular sugar (besides the price) comes from the way it is made. Unlike centrifugal sugar, panela is made the pre-19th century way, by simply evaporating the water.
Other so-called non-centrifugal sugars from other parts of the world include jaggery and gur (Asia), papelon (Caribbean), tang (China), and many others. They are basically all the same thing.
Difference between white sugar and brown sugar
If the only difference between white sugar and brown sugar is that brown sugar has more molasses in it, does that mean that panela is simply normal brown sugar? If it is, why would anyone fork out extra money to buy it instead of Aussie brown sugar?
The answer to that question lies in a not-so-secret secret of the sugar industry: brown sugar is normal white sugar, with some molasses splashed onto it. It is far more efficient for the sugar company to make white sugar then add varying amounts of molasses to it in order to arrive at the desired colour and taste combination, rather than make separate batches of less-refined sugar.
Crack a typical brown sugar crystal in half and look closely, you will see that it is white inside!
Unlike typical brown sugar, panela is brown all the way through, so it contains a higher proportion of molasses and tastes much more “molassesy”. Panela is a less-pure sugar than normal brown sugar because it is made the old-fashioned way, without a centrifuge.
So, is Panela healthier than sugar or not?
Panela and other non-centrifugal sugars naturally contain molasses as well as sugar, so by default they are theoretically healthier because molasses contain trace minerals and vitamins whereas sugar is just that: sugar.
Pure molasses itself is high in vitamin B6, magnesium, manganese, and other minerals.
However, from a practical standpoint, there is almost zero nutritional benefit to opting for panela instead of normal white sugar. This is because the actual quantity of molasses you will consume by substituting panela for regular sugar is so small as to be insignificantly beneficial for your health. It differs by brand and even by batch, but the actual molasses content of panela is usually about 5% by volume. Nutritionally, this is an insignificant percentage considering that sugar is not a product that is consumed by the bowlful.
You would need to eat 20 spoons of panela to get the nutrition of one spoon of molasses. One spoon of molasses would provide about one fifteenth of your recommended daily amount of vitamin B6.
The amount of extra minerals and vitamins you get from a teaspoon of panela stirred into your coffee compared to a teaspoon of regular white sugar is so tiny as to be virtually undetectable. If you are eating panela to get the nutritional benefit of molasses, you’re doing it wrong. Just buy a jar of molasses instead.
As you can see from our calorie counter database, there is no meaningful difference in the calorie count of panela and regular sugar. Most types of sugar pack about 385-395 calories per 100 grams, (about 18 calories for a teaspoon) including both centrifugal and non-centrifugal types.
Panela, like white sugar, is “empty calories”.
The difference is taste
When it comes right down to it, the only sensical reason to use panela instead of other sugar is taste. Panela tastes much more interesting than regular sugar because it is thoroughly imbued with molasses.
Not all molasses tastes the same, because not all sugar cane tastes the same just as not all apples taste the same. In the same vein, molasses taste different depending on how they have been made, how long they were boiled for, what temperature they cooled, what water if any was used in the process of evaporating the sugar syrup to make the solid block of panela.
On the other hand, all white cane sugar tastes the same because it is 99+% pure.
Something about the South American cane and their age-old process makes panela tasty. It is so tasty that in South America, people call home-made lemonade “panela water” (aguapanela), probably because the panela flavour dominates the lemon juice.
Beware misleading marketing
Perhaps the key takeaway is that panela tastes better than regular white or brown sugar (assuming you like the taste of molasses), but it is just as lacking in nutrients. Do not fall for the marketing ploy which leads one to believe that panela is healthier than sugar, because it simply isn’t!