Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Sweeter Things in Life: AGAVE

We are all in search of the sweeter things in life. That being said, over the next few weeks I will be writing about all the different sweeteners that are available to consumers now, and hopefully help you discern the differences between the sweeteners, and if there are any benefits or negative side effects of consuming one over another. So, to start, what's the deal with "Agave" and is it really that much better for you than sugar, Splenda, honey, and all the other sweeteners out there?

Agave syrup, or nectar, comes from a cactus-like plant found in the southwestern United States. Some of you alcohol drinkers may have seen the term Agave on your tequila bottles, and yes, in fact, tequila is  made from the same plant as our beloved sweetener. I know that there are many people who have bought into the top-notch marketing of this product and converted entirely to using agave syrup instead of sugar, honey, or artificial sweeteners. There are tons of agave products on the market with different brand names (Wholesome Sweeteners, Madhava, etc), they come in dozens of flavors (hazelnut, maple, strawberry, cinnamon, etc), and are usually one of two colors (blue or amber). However, I caution you to consider the research before you entirely switch to using agave as your sweetener (or for any food item that is). Plus, Agave is not cheap as most 11.75 oz bottles can cost you anywhere from $5-9.

The number of Agave products on the market tripled from 2003 to 2007, most likely because of positive press that labeled agave as a “low glycemic” sweetener that is a “good alternative for diabetics.”  However, agave offers the exact same amount of calories as sugar (16 per tsp.= 48/tbsp) and is only slightly sweeter than sugar. What is also disconcerting about this product is that there is no uniformity in its makeup, so the different brands you buy may be completely different from each other. For instance, some versions contain 55% fructose, while others are 90% fructose. The majority of agave syrups on the market have higher levels of fructose compared to glucose (sucrose, or table sugar, is about 50/50 glucose/fructose). Having a higher level of fructose may not cause as large of a blood sugar spike as table sugar. However, the levels of fructose in many versions make it comparable in composition to the detested high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) (55% fructose: 45% glucose). As you may know, HFCS is not too popular among health conscious individuals and is often blamed for the American obesity epidemic because of it being the primary ingredient in soda. Furthermore, high levels of fructose have shown to increase triglycerides which is not favorable for anyone, especially diabetics. Scientific research has yet to show that agave is any safer for diabetics than sugar, and many more studies need to be conducted about any possible health benefits.

 On the upside, Agave may offer a slight benefit over sugar since it is higher in antioxidants, adds a unique flavor, is often "organic", and contains long fructose chains called fructans that can act like fiber in the body. However, at 16 calories per teaspoon and a hefty price tag (around $5 for 12 ounces), consuming large quantities of this sweetener is not healthy nor economical. So, my advice to you is if you like agave better than sugar, go for it! However, agave syrup contains the exact same amount of calories as table sugar and should be treated just as it is: a sweetener, not a health food. Use in moderation.

"Agave nectar is in demand, but is it better for you than ordinary sugar?" Environmental Nutrition Apr. 2010: 7. General OneFile. Web. 23 June 2010
Los Angeles times. Agave syrup's benefits are in debate
Nagel, Rami. "Agave nectar: the high-fructose health food fraud." Townsend Letter May 2009: 69+. General OneFile. Web. 23 June 2010.
Phillips KM, Carlsen MH, Blomhoff R. J Am Diet Assoc.  Total antioxidant content of alternatives to refined sugar. 2009 Jan;109(1):64-71.

No comments: