Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Agave Science and Recommended Sweeteners

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The debate between agave and it's benefits and safety as a sweetener is a subject which has been hotly debated. (Are you sick of it by now?) Unfortunately, before learning about the truth about agave I was an agave-holic too. Some of you reading this have probably already made your own conclusions about the issue, but for those of you who are new or late about hearing about "the great agave debate," I just wanted to share what I have learned, from both a personal and a scientific perspective.

At the beginning of my health and later blogging journey, I learned about agave online, probably from another food blogger who was into it. After picking some up from the store, I started implementing it in all my recipes, thinking that this mild-tasting, low-glycemic, raw, no-cane sugar sweetener, would be the perfect sugar alternative. Safe for diabetics? Sounds good to me, I have always been sensitive to sugar and it's affects on me. Slowly but surely I gradually started to buy more and more, putting agave in recipes and adding it to my tea, buying coconut milk ice creams sweetened with agave and loving "raw" agave desserts.

When the word came out that agave is not as great as it is cracked up to be, I was saddened. I should no longer eat the coconut ice cream I grew to love, and no longer drizzle the delicious honey-agave mixture over my crumbly cornbread. But when I read the science, I knew. You can't argue with science.

After doing some research, I went throughout the kitchen and threw out my bottles of agave, dug through my freezer and threw away the baked goods I had made with agave syrup, stopped putting it into my morning smoothies and sadly threw away my coconut milk ice creams (after a bite of good bye ;) ). From where I am now, I don't look back. I know my decision is the best for my body... and here are a couple reasons why I don't support agave syrup.

1) The food industry has propelled it from two or three bottles on some small health food market shelves, to an agave section bigger than honey in large grocery stores like Whole Foods Market, Walmart, your local grocery (Albertson's, Hannafords, Shaw's, Stater's, Publix). The food industry is not as trustworthy as we consumers are led to believe. Just as the soy and low-fat agenda is being pushed upon us, so is agave. When something goes mainstream, I take notice. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

2) Agave syrup is a relatively new product. Since learning from the Weston A. Price foundation about real food and traditional diets, I have learned that new foods are not necessarily good foods. Food should be unprocessed, and close to it's most original source and form as possible. Agave nectar is very far from meeting this criteria. See my next couple points to discover why. With "new foods" we don't know their affects on the human body long term. It's better to stick with traditional foods that our parents and grandparents and generations before them have been eating. Fresh milk, happy eggs, real meats, poultry, nourishing fats, fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.

3) Agave syrup is very high in fructose. We need to be mindful about the amount of fructose we are consuming, since our body is not adequately prepared to handle large doses of fructose in a single time. Products containing agave and HFCS overload the abilities of our body to deal with the excess amounts of fructose. Fructose is dealt with specifically by our liver. And unlike glucose, fructose does not activate the hormonal pathways (gherlin) in our body which cause us to feel satiated. A person will eat more of a product with fructose in it, than something with glucose, since glucose stimulates those pathways and causes you to realize that you've had enough. Small amounts of fructose is ok, it occurs naturally in fruits. Large amounts of fructose in any form, be it agave, HFCS, or fruits, is not recommended. And perhaps the most shocking thing is... that agave syrup is actually higher in fructose than high-fructose corn syrup!!

4) Just because it's "natural" and in the health food store or carried by Whole Foods, does NOT mean that it is good for you. Jenny over at Nourished Kitchen highlighted this issue in popular blog post you can read here.

5) Agave syrup is extremely processed. It is not "natural." Like how industrial oils are processed, agave syrup is extracted and heated and poked and prodded to become the syrup we see on the shelves.

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As if all the evidence was not enough, for me and my decision, it comes down to this: I eat real food. Agave is not a real food since it is extremely processed. Therefore I do not eat agave.

Sweeteners the WAPF would recommend, and I would too are stevia, raw honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar.

     I used to buy my raw honey online here, but most recently I tried some local honey which I purchased from my favorite grocery store. The honey was made in Maine, and was fantastic! It is more expensive for a smaller jar, but you can actually use less since it is about 40% more sweet and more flavorful.

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    For maple syrup, I buy organic at the grocery store. Last summer, however, my mom and I were antiquing in Queechee, VT and we bought a GALLON of organic maple syrup from a lovely family at the farmers market there. Grade B maple syrup has more vitamins and minerals and tastes the best, with a richer, darker, bolder flavor. Grade A is thinner and less rich, and is the type most people pour on their pancakes.

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    Stevia is great! There are many different brands out there, and each one has different ingredients and strengths. My most favorite is Sweetleaf vanilla creme stevia, which blogger friend Kelly turned me on to. My Naturopath actually spoke to the company and Sweetleaf is the only stevia that is not watered down or full of fillers.

Photo credit - Zebra Organics
    Coconut sugar has the greatest flavor. I think of it as a sugar that tastes like evaporated cane juice mixed with maple syrup but has the texture of Sucanat. It's perfect for making your own homemade hot cocoa mixture, or for browning tops of gluten free muffins.

Based on all the evidence here, I would go so far as to recommend pure cane sugar over any other sort of "fake sweetener" whether it is agave, xylitol, erithrytol, Splenda, NutraSweet, Equal, etc. Your body knows what to do with glucose, but it cannot handle these different substances. Glucose is real, these other sweeteners are NOT!

I hope that this was helpful for some of you. Many of my friends have been confused and wondering why agave really isn't good for you! It's easy to be deceived into thinking something is true since we often times do not get the facts right or do the research ourselves first. What decision have you made about agave?

I'd love to hear your thoughts,

Check out these other articles for some more information:


Lissi*Star said...

I have been thinking about this too, thanks for the great information, I especially will keep in mind your thought on eating "real" food. If it isn't real, and my grandma didn't eat it, then I won't eat it.

Anonymous said...

What about molasses? That is a favorite in our family. It may have a strong flavor, but so does maple syrup grade B compared to maple syrup grade A. Once you are used to it other stuff tastes bland.

Meagan said...

Hi Anon. - To be honest I completely forgot molasses! Blackstrap molasses is taken from thrice boiled sugar cane, and so it does contain a bit of the remaining sucrose. It's full of concentrated vitamins and minerals like iron, mg2+, ca2+, and k+. I love to use molasses since I think the flavor is fantastic alone and when paired with ginger to make my favorite gingerbread men. Since it does come from cane sugar, using only a little bit is key; it is sucrose (table sugar), so it's both glucose+fructose. As for maple B vs maple A - I think maple B is WAY better. The flavor is deliciously "mapley" and it has more minerals and is LESS refined and even more viscous than grade A. Many people like maple A since they are used to fake grocery store HFCS maple syrup "knock offs" like Mrs. Buttersworth or something similar, but if I were to chose A vs B, I'd choose B every single time.