By W.A Wijewardena –
‘Kithul syrup can be Sri Lanka’s maple syrup to the world,’ says scientist Sirimal Premakumara
‘Drink Ceylon Tea: The brain tonic’
Some 150 years ago, the British planters introduced a new herbal drink called ‘Ceylon Tea’ to the European markets. Their marketing slogan? “Drink Ceylon Tea: The Brain Tonic”, according to a billboard in a London grocery store of mid-19th century which had been reconstructed and kept on display in the British Museum till mid 1970s.
The British planters had had no scientific evidence to prove their claim at that time. They would have simply relied on the mind-stimulating property of tea to substantiate their claim.
However, as W.W.D. Modder and A.M.T. Amarakoon of Sri Lanka’s Tea Research Institute have documented in their 2002 book ‘Tea and Health’, later scientific evidence has established that caffeine in tea enhances the mood, sharpens mental clarity and vigilance, promotes the higher functions of the brain needed for mental calculations, etc., delays mental fatigue, increases alertness and shortens the reaction time to an issue posed to a person (p 141).
The ingenious marketing done by British planters, even without scientific backing, put Ceylon on the world map crowning it as the best tea producer in the world. However, over the years, tea’s importance in Sri Lanka’s economy has faded due to the competition from other tea producers and the threat posed by alternative beverages that had come to the market since then.
Kithul syrup can put Sri Lanka back on the world map
Now, there is another herbal product which has the capacity for putting Sri Lanka back on the world map if the country is able to manage its marketing properly, according to a leading Sri Lankan scientist. That scientist is Dr Sirimal Premakumara, former Director General/Chief Executive Officer of Sri Lanka’s Industrial Technology Institute, popularly known as ITI.
The product is what is known as ‘kithul syrup’ made out of the sap extracted by tapping the flower of the solitary-trunked palm tree called ‘fish-tail tree’ or in its botanical name, ‘Caryota urens’. This tree is at present grown freely in the wide land mass of the Wet Zone in Sri Lanka and home to all the countries in South and South East Asia. However, it is only in Sri Lanka that this tree is tapped for its sap which is used for producing this unique syrup and, after further fermentation, a beer-like soft alcohol called toddy.
The low sap yield under traditional tapping
Premakumara says that he got interested in kithul syrup after he came to know, following a meeting at Parliament, that the Government was planning to allocate some money to uplift the industry.
Coming from a kithul growing area, he knew how the traditional kithul tappers were doing their job. They used traditional tapping methods and those methods, coupled with medicinal mixtures used to prime the kithul inflorescence, yielded a very poor sap output. That poor output did not bring them sufficient income to sustain their own livelihood thereby impeding further growth of the industry.
Hence, the Government’s plan to spend money on kithul industry was just putting good money after the bad. If the program was to be a success, the sap output of kithul tappers had to be increased by several-fold. He says that he decided to address his scientific mind to come up with a formula to increase the sap output so that kithul syrup industry would bring a good income to tappers and thereby help the industry to sustain.
Accordingly, the scientists at the Herbal Technology Division of ITI were directed to undertake a model project that aimed at reassessing the traditional knowledge and proposing a new formula that would help the industry to increase its output.
“The project,” he says, “had several targets. One was to protect our traditional knowledge and use that knowledge for economic development. Then, there was the need for scouting about grassroots-level innovation and innovators. But all these were to be done through the adoption of a scientific approach to validate the results scientifically.”
KASPER to rescue kithul industry
The research team at ITI found that the traditional tapping techniques used by local tappers enabled only about a third of the trees in the country to be tapped for sap collection. That was because only a few trees yielded to such herbal treatment and all others were resistant to it. This meant that a vast majority of kithul trees remained untapped. The low yield per tree ranging between three and 10 litres a day also compelled some tappers to use techniques that led in turn to the production of inferior kithul syrup and kithul jaggery.
Since both the quality and the quantity of the sap extracted depended on the herbal mixtures used to induce the secretion of sap from kithul flowers, the research team decided, says Premakumara, to work on the discovery of an effective treatment method to increase yield per tree and bring the vast majority of trees which had remained untapped in the country back to tapping.
The result was the discovery of a new treatment mixture that included a plant growth regulator, antioxidants and electrolytes that supported to induce a higher secretion of sap by each kithul flower. This mixture was called Kithul Activation and Sap Product Enhancing Reagent or KASPER. KASPER treatment contained food grade stimulants, some salt and a common antioxidant. Almost all the kithul trees including those that had been resistant to the traditional treatment methods yielded to this new mixture.
Premakumara says that the required doses of KASPER and training as to how it should be used were made available to potential tappers freely. Kasper generated two positive results. In the first place, the number of tapping days per kithul flower was increased from an average of 50 days under traditional tapping methods to an average of 75 days under KASPER. Second, the yield per tree per day shot up from three litres under traditional methods to 10 litres under the new method.
Premakumara says that KASPER also helped tappers to reactivate the sap flow which may have ceased due to some sudden climate changes. This meant practically trebling of the income of kithul tappers per day per tree. Given the technical formula that six litres of sap could produce one kg of kithul jaggery and one one kg of jaggery could be sold for Rs. 200, a kithul tapper could earn Rs. 1,000 easily if he taps only three kithul trees a day.
The need for more kithul technicians
According to the kithul census conducted in 2009, kithul trees are grown throughout the island except the Northern Province and Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts. In the rest of the island, they are mostly found in the Rathnapura, Monaragala and Badulla Districts. There had been about 2.9 million trees, of which about half a million had been flowering trees while about 1.5 million had been plants. The tappers in 2009 had numbered about 29,000.
Since a kithul tree takes about 15 years to flower and become ready for tapping, by 2025, there should be about two million flowering trees. Hence, the number of tappers available for tapping the potential trees in the country is woefully inadequate and a further 50,000 people should be trained to meet the demand by that time.
Since kithul tapping is rated at a low stratum of society, marked by caste related inhibitions, the youth entering the tapping profession have been low. To overcome this social issue, Premakumara suggests that the tappers be redesignated kithul technicians and be provided with a uniform and safety headgears. Details of the Kithul Project;
Kithul syrup is a superb medicinal product
“The advantage of kithul syrup lies in its superior medicinal properties,” says Premakumara. “The glucose and fructose content in the kithul syrup is extremely low and as a result in the Glycaemic Index or GI, this syrup is ranked as a low GI food.”
The Glycaemic Index, according to its official website, ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to which they increase blood sugar levels after eating that particular food. High GI foods are rapidly digested and absorbed resulting in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Low GI foods, on the other hand, do both slowly and therefore lead to gradual increases in blood sugar levels and the production of insulin.
Thus, low GI diets, says the website, have been proven to improve both glucose and lipid levels in people who have Type I as well as Type II diabetes. They also have the benefit of helping weight control because they control appetite and delay hunger. Low GI diets also reduce insulin levels and insulin resistance. A further benefit of low GI diets is the reduction of the risks of having coronary disease, diabetes and obesity.
Premakumara says that any unrefined sugar syrup such as kithul, coconut, palmyrah, sugarcane or maple is better than refined white sugar. Of the unrefined syrup, kithul is not only a low GI food but also rich with many health-promoting minerals and acids. It contains polyphenols which are antioxidants, organic acids which are bioactive, amino acids which have many functions, beta carotenes that cause to produce Vitamin A and ascorbic acid or Vitamin C that improves immunity.
It also has an abundant supply of inositol which brings a large number of health benefits, according to Japan Food Research Laboratories (available at: http://ceylonki.com/KITUL.html). Hence, like Ceylon Tea which went to European markets as a brain tonic, Ceylon kithul syrup can go to the market as a wonder health food or more specifically, as a friend of the diabetic.
Lone attempt by emerging Lankan entrepreneur
A Sri Lankan entrepreneur, Tilak C. Perera of Ceylon Kitul Institute or CKI, has made a daring attempt at popularising kithul syrup in Japan to sweeten yoghurt, tea and coffee replacing traditional refined sugars. The main promotional ground has been the identified health benefits of kithul syrup by being on the low side of the GI Index and numerous other minerals and acids it contains.
In an interview on television in 2008, he claimed that he cannot meet the demand because of the shortage of quality unadulterated products at home. Therefore, there is enough entrepreneurial interest in taking Ceylon kithul syrup to the world. What is lacking is an uninterrupted supply of kithul syrup that meets the health standards stipulated by the consuming countries.
Maple syrup is the main competitor
Canada’s maple syrup is the main competitor to Ceylon’s kithul syrup in the global markets. It has already captured the global markets accounting for about 80% of the total global consumption of maple syrup.
Canada’s Maple Syrup Producers’ Association, actively supported by both the Federal and Provincial governments, has been able to plant a very cogent marketing slogan in maple syrup consuming public in Western countries. That is, without maple syrup, they cannot have a complete breakfast. The obvious reference here is to the combination of maple syrup with pancakes, a very popular breakfast on the Western menu.
Going by its golden colour and money making capability, it is also termed ‘liquid gold’ in the market (available here). To keep the public interest in maple syrup going undiminished, there are a large number of annual maple syrup festivals held in almost all the maple syrup producing states in USA and provinces in Canada.
It is unlikely that Ceylon’s kithul syrup can beat this well-established market for maple syrup in Western countries. However, there is one advantage which Ceylon’s kithul syrup commands over Canada’s maple syrup. That is, while maple syrup is ranked as a high GI food in the GI index, kithul syrup is ranked as a low GI food. That means, maple syrup is not friendly to diabetic patients and those who seek to fight obesity whereas kithul syrup is friendly to them. With this marketing slogan, kithul syrup can be promoted in Japan, South Korea and China.
Challenges to be met
What are the challenges faced by Sri Lanka in promoting its kithul syrup as a world renowned sweetener? There are many. First, kithul sap yield has to be increased from the current levels so that Sri Lanka can supply kithul syrup to the world markets at a lower price.
Second, kithul syrup has to be produced by following the accepted health and hygienic standards. At present, when the uncovered pot is hung under the tapped kithul inflorescence for collecting the flowing sap, many foreign bodies such as insects and birds’ droppings, etc. fall into it. It increases the risk of contamination, thereby failing to meet the health standards set by importing countries.
Maple syrup does not have this problem because sap is collected via a network of tubes connected from tree to tree and then linked to the collecting centre or the processing factory. With that kind of an arrangement, there is no possibility for foreign bodies to contaminate the saps.
Third, it is necessary to produce kithul syrup unadulterated with sugars or fruit juices. This requires continuous education of producers on the need for supplying pure kithul syrup to the market. Fourth, aggressive marketing strategies should be designed to project kithul syrup as a health product friendly to diabetics and obese people intent on reducing their weight.
Fifth, internal production, collection and supply networks should be developed with the active support of the state in the first phase of the development of the industry. In this connection, growing kithul trees as commercial plantations is a must in order to ensure regular supply, holistic use of the kithul tree after its productive life span as timber and kithul flour and effective enforcement of quality standards.
Kithul syrup is also ‘liquid gold’
Kithul syrup is also of golden colour just like maple syrup. Hence, it also qualifies to be called liquid gold. That liquid gold can place Sri Lanka on the world map again, as was done by Ceylon Tea some 150 years ago, by presenting it to the consumers worldwide as a health food helping people to fight diabetes and obesity.
*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Sirimal Premakumara can be reached at email@example.com