Medicinal Uses of Sugar

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

medicinal uses of sugar may seem counterintuitive in modern Western society, where sugar is considered a substance at worst inimical to health and at best a guilty pleasure carrying empty calories. However, in most past civilizations sugar was not merely the spoonful that helped the medicine go down, it was the medicine. This medicinal usage is rooted in ancient dietetic theory.

Sugar is a giant grass, Saccharum officinarum, native to the highlands of New Guinea, but there are also species found in India. Indians were the first to cultivate and process sugar, and the Sanskrit word sarkara is the origin of the Arabic sukkar, our “sugar,” as well as the word in most other languages. See sugar. The Latin epithet officinalis that is sometimes used in place of officinarum for the plant’s botanical name denotes that the substance belongs in the medicine cabinet. In the Ayurvedic system of ancient India, sugarcane juice is used to increase kapha—the dosha or bodily humor that regulates fluids in the body and lubrication. By this logic the juice serves as an expectorant in coughs, as an aphrodisiac that increases the libido, and as a diuretic to detoxify the kidneys. See aphrodisiacs. The ancient Charaka Samhita offers one of the earliest references to sugar’s medicinal value: “The juice of the sugarcane, if the stalk is chewed with the aid of the teeth, increases the semen, is cool, purges the intestines, is oily, promotes nutrition and corpulency and excites the phlegm.”