Sugar cane grown to produce refined white sugar is a segmented stalk similar in appearance to bamboo. At harvest time, workers cut off these stalks just above the roots and transport them to a sugar processing plant to be pressed. Some of these sugar cane stalks do not end up in commercial factories, however. In many countries, roadside vendors use special hand-powered presses to crush the sugar cane stalks and release the raw sugar cane juice they contain. The juice can then be sold in plastic bags or cups as a refreshing beverage.
Sugar cane juice is the raw ingredient that sugar manufacturers process into the familiar granulated white sugar sold as a sweetener. Through evaporation and distillation, most of the moisture is removed from the raw liquid and the result is a crystalline powder we recognize as sucrose or sugar. The juice of sugar beets can also be used to produce white sugar, but only sections of sugar cane are used to create cane juice.
Because the juice is naturally sweet, it can be sold directly as a fresh beverage without additional processing. Some vendors will add flavorful ingredients such as ginger, lime juice or mint leaves to make the drink even more palatable. Fresh sugar cane juice has no preservatives, however, and it has a tendency to turn black from oxidation soon after pressing. The fresh form can be bottled for commercial sale in local grocery stores, but it may not be as flavorful as the variety sold from street stands.
One popular cocktail which incorporates sugar cane juice is known as a Mojito. Finding authentic juice on American store shelves can be a challenge, but a number of Asian or Hispanic grocery stores may import the product and keep it under refrigeration. Canned juice may also be known as guarapo in some Hispanic markets. There is also a more processed product called evaporated cane juice that is often used as an organic alternative to traditional sugar.
Raw sugar cane juice supplemented with ginger or lime juice is also a popular source of liquid nutrition during a medical fast or cleansing. Some fasting enthusiasts believe it contains more nutrients than the maple syrup often used during such cleanses. There is anecdotal evidence that the juice does have a direct effect on the digestive system, as witnessed by tourists who have reported severe bouts of diarrhea after consuming it. Some travel experts suggest avoiding these roadside stands because the unused sugar cane stalks may not be stored under sanitary conditions and the effects of drinking pure sugar water may be felt within minutes of consumption.