This is Part 2 of the Sugar Series. Read Part 1: Are You Eating Too Much Sugar? here.
Many health nuts today, with the knowledge that sugar is doing us no favors, are turning to sugar alternatives to get their sweet fix. Agave nectar is one of those alternatives that has been touted as a healthy and safe sugar substitute and many of us have incorporated it into our diets. It appeals to the health conscious among us because it’s advertised as a raw, vegan, low-glycemic sweetener. But is it all it’s cracked up to be? Let’s find out….
The Real Thing
What you buy in the store is not the same as the traditional indigenous sweetener that can only be found in Mexico. When the agave plant is 8 years old, it grows a long flower which is then removed. The agave plant tries to heal the wound from the removed flower by producing agave nectar. What you buy in the store is not that nectar. Traditional, indigenous, Mexican agave syrup is not even that nectar. Even the real thing is further processed by boiling the agave nectar produced by the plant down to a syrup. It has a strong smell and flavor that isn’t as desirable as the agave syrup you buy in the store that is engineered to appeal to the consumer’s palate.
What you buy
Commercial agave nectar is made by extracting a substance called inulin, which is the fiber of the agave plant and is not sweet at all. The inulin is then heated and artificially digested with enzymes (and sometimes chemicals) to break down the fiber into fructose. If the temperature is maintained below 115 degrees, the syrup will still be raw. However, the “RAW” label is not regulated and thus there is no guarantee that higher temperatures were not used in processing. The resulting product is a syrup that is anywhere from 70-90% fructose (the reamining 10-30% is glucose). This is a considerably higher fructose concentration than even High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which is 55% fructose. No where in nature does fructose occur at such a high concentration.
The Fructose Factor
So why is fructose such a bad thing? I mean fructose is the sugar found in fruit, right? So what’s wrong with eating it in agave? The answer is the fructose in fruit is naturally occurring in much lower amounts and is part of a complex of fiber, fatty acids, vitamins and antioxidants which synergistically deliver nutrition to your body as a “package deal”. Our bodies know exactly what to do with that package. They unwrap it and utilize each of the components as nature intended.
When you start consuming concentrated fructose (as is found in HFCS and agave), it can cause insulin resistance, increase your triglycerides (leading to heart disease) and is very taxing on your liver. The reason that agave is so hard on your liver is that, like advertised, it is a low-glycemic food. But there is a lot of confusion around this term ‘low-glycemic’. It doesn’t necessarily equate to a healthy product. Agave nectar is low-glycemic because of its high fructose content. Instead of being metabolized in the intestines, fructose is metabolized solely by the liver, where it’s immediately turned into triglycerides or stored body fat. (See Sugar Series Part 1)
The bottom line is, agave is NOT a good sugar substitute.
Before I launch into the beneficial sugar substitutes, I want to take a minute and bust one more myth. Xylitol is another sugar alternative that is gaining popularity and there are some misconceptions here, too. At one time, xylitol was made from birch, creating the illusion that it’s natural. Today however, Xylitol is made from various sources like corn cobs, hardwood and cotton by-products and the final product is a highly processed sugar alcohol.
Xylitol is promoted as being a diabetic-friendly sweetener. While that may be true, because it’s not completely absorbed, it can cause digestive issues, like bloating, diarrhea and gas. Like fructose, xylitol is metabolized by the liver, creating undue stress on the liver. Overall, I don’t recommend relying heavily on Xylitol as a sweetener, if at all.
Raw honey, preferably from a local source, has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. It strengthens the immune system, promotes digestive health and is a powerful antioxidant.
Maple syrup is rich in the nutrients Thiamine, Manganese and Zinc. Maple syrup has been shown to prevent diabetes and slow cancer cell growth. Grade B maple syrup is more nutrient dense than the lighter Grade A.
Stevia is a natural, safe alternative to sugar, made from the leaves of the stevia plant. Stevia has almost no calories and does not impact blood sugar levels or contribute to obesity. It is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, so only a small amount is needed. Stevia is my sweetener of choice. The biggest complaint I hear about Stevia is that it has a bit of a bitter after taste. I noticed this at first, but it quickly faded after using it a short while. It also seems that the after taste may be stronger in different brands. If you find the after taste offensive, try a few other brands before giving up on it as a sweetener. I use Sweetleaf Liquid Stevia. When using stevia in baking, I usually use half stevia and half raw honey or Grade B maple syrup. Sugar-based sweeteners contributes mouth-feel to baked goods and using 100% stevia will sacrifice the texture. As with any sweetener, moderation is key. Stevia still provides your taste buds with a sweet taste and indulging in excessive amounts of it will prime your body for wanting more sweets.
Next up in the Sugar Series: Part 3: How to Overcome a Sugar Addiction