Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Agave Research and More Sugar Confusion


I’ve been spending part of my week researching sugars and supposedly natural sweeteners. What I have determined is – I have a headache!

I’ve become more interested in sugar lately because 1) We now live in Brazil where the sugarcane industry is huge. 2) I notice a lot of people switching from this sweetener to that one in an effort to be more ______________ .(Fill in the blank with your choice of words: healthy, green, natural, fake food free, etc.)

I use refined white sugar in moderation. Yes, I do know that this is a processed food, has addictive properties, and on, and on. I’ve read it all. I use a lot less of it currently, but still use the traditional recipes that have been in my family since my great grandmother and they call for sugar.

I’ve been questioning agave nectar for a while which lead me to look at other sugars which has led me to the conclusion – raw honey and pure maple syrup probably reign supreme for being the most natural sweeteners. When it comes to all the others, one is just about as bad as the other, for one reason or another.

What started my search: Agave

As most of you probably already know agave comes from the core of the agave plant in Mexico. The short story is the juice is extracted, filtered, heated and hydrolyzed (a chemical process to break bonds) to break down its naturally long fructose chains. So it is basically a processed sweetener and the result is 90% fructose. As most of the information I read states, HFCS gives is about 55% fructose.

Why can fructose be a problem?

As long as you eat fruit you consume fructose. The main reason commercial products containing fructose are a problem is the massive amount (like most things in our society) we are consuming versus the amount we would typically consume from fruit.

One research study I read from Nutrition & Metabolism stated that fruit contributed about 16 – 20 grams per day, while commercial foods are now giving us 85 – 100 grams of fructose a day.

Fructose, unlike other sugars, is absorbed and metabolized directly by the liver. It’s possible this overabundance can lead to problems with insulin sensitivity and obesity. Some evidence of it contributing to a fatty liver has been suggested as well.

So what’s the conclusion?


Heck if I know! Just kidding.

The truth is I’m on a journey just like you - to continue cleaning up my diet and separate myself from this society that seems to be tricking us into believing what is healthy and what is not. My nutrition background helps me to understand how things are processed in our bodies and how things are processed commercially, but that doesn’t mean I have all, or any, answers to the sweetener debate. Well, except for the fact that I’m not in favor of artificial sweeteners at all.

My personal consensus is that I’m not going to switch to something like Agave nectar as my sweetener because I don’t think it is any better than white sugar. I plan to incorporate more raw honey and maple syrup (If I can afford it. U$ 13 for a tiny can at my grocery store in the States.). I’ll continue to use white sugar in some of my baking. At the same time I will be trying to reduce my needs for sweets/sugars all together.

If you’re interested, here is a list of some of my reading along the way. Some of it honest, some of it fact and some of it swayed by industry. I think it is important to check out all sides and decide the best approach for you, keeping common sense in mind.

I also want to mention if you haven’t checked out the blog The Nourished Kitchen and are interested in sweeteners, go there now! She has some great posts on modern and natural sweeteners that I found in my search: Modern Sweeteners: What Are They & What They Do and A Guide to Natural Sugars & How to Use Them

Here are some of my other reads:

Madhava Agave Nectar
The Truth about Agave Syrup from Living and Raw Foods
White sugar vs raw sugar from Green living tips
White Sugar from a processor of Brazilian sugarcane



Photo by Neal McQ, www.freerangestock.com

26 comments:

VeggieGirl said...

Interesting study you conducted!! It's definitely a confusing topic.

lauren said...

very interesting. I am going to read some of those articles when I have some time because I recently purchased some agave nectar to try based on my blog reading, but maybe honey is better? hmm.

thanks for the info!

Erica said...

Thank you for this. It is super confusing and its easily to be convinced one way or another. I'm with you...regular sugar it is! I try to sub honey when possible (and by possible I mean my taste buds are ok with it haha).

Meg said...

Thanks for this info! I always love learning more about the confusing sugar world!

lesley said...

This is interesting ... one thing I've read about agave nectar that I've liked is the fact that is has a pretty low gi in comparison to many other sweeteners.

Currently, I don't bake much so I don't really have a need for sweeteners but I do use agave in a few things and currenly sweeten my hot tea with Truvia ... though I'm attempting to get to a point where I don't need to sweeten my tea and/or am able to use less.

A very interesting/confusing topic non the less ...

Daily Spud said...

On the question of artifical sweeteners, I'm very much in your camp, in that I use sugar or honey and don't especially bother with artificial alternatives. What I will tend to do, though, is question how much (if any) sugar I need to use at all. When I'm stewing fruit such as apricots or apples, often there's enough natural sweetness there for me already - I don't add any supplementary sugar, and I do try to avoid highly processed foods. Moderation and a bit of common sense can go a long way!

Caitlin said...

This is a great post. I tried agave but it tastes very similar to honey anyway. I use maple syrup a lot too, because a little goes a long way. Thank you for sharing!

laura said...

Thank you for this. I like your approach to the sweeteners debate, so I really learn a lot from these posts. I get swayed for a while (read that agave is low GI but hadn't tried it yet) and then come back to just needing to eat less sweet.

Andrea (Off Her Cork) said...

I have cut back on the white sugar as well but still have it around because honestly I find it does have it's uses. I also use brown sugar as well in some things like homemade BBQ sauce. You just can't get the right taste using something else (IMO).

I try and use honey the most and I have some agave nectar that I use in tea every so often but would much rather have honey.

What I totally avoid are the fake sweetners, like aspartame and even splenda. That stuff is just gross!

ChefBliss.com said...

Nice study, it definitely has many angles. My boyfriend can't have cane sugar, so we use agave, honey, molasses, and maple syrup. But the low GI, and mellow taste (and price, we buy bulk for savings) of the agave makes it favorable. The key though, like you said, is moderation. We don't use a lot, but the truth is, when you make your meals mostly from scratch and can't buy anything that has cane sugar in it you need viable alternatives. And for that we try to go with things that are not chemically produced. I am also researching palm sugar, honey powder, and xylitol right now. Thanks for a great article.

Tangled Noodle said...

Excellent information! Several people have raved about agave but couldn't say why it was great except to state that they'd heard it was a healthy alternative sweetener. I use organic cane, turbinado, muscavado, honey and maple syrup but my problem is amount. I think you're on the right track that natural sweeteners all have their pros and cons and that the issue may be more about how much of them we (I) use.

Lori said...

VeggieGirl - Yes, I think I'm more confused than I was before. Ha, ha!

Lauren - Check them out, they were helpful for me seeing all sides of the issue.

Erica - I want to start focusing more on honey. I've finally gotten to the point of eating plain yogurt and adding honey to get rid of artificial sweeteners and HFCS.

Lesley - I've slowly gotten used to tea without sweetener. I do like it with honey though.

Meg - You are welcome. Glad I could help, well I guess. Maybe I just confused everyone more. :)

Daily Spud - I know what you mean. Making those energy bars the other day was a perfect example. I think I probably could have done without the brown sugar in those completely.

Caitlin - I have to admit I've never tried it. I really do want to start using maple syrup more. I've heard of people getting good results from baking with it.

laura - I go back and forth too. I know sugar isn't the greatest for me, but I like to look at other things and see if they are worth changing to. For me, I don't think agave would be.However, honey and maple syrup are probably worth the adjustment.

Andrea - I'm not a fake sweetener fan either. I've gotten to the point where I really can't tolerate it. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth and sometimes gives me a headache.

Chefbliss - It sounds like you've had to choose alternatives out of necessity. You've probably had to get pretty creative. I can see how agave nectar would be a favorable choice in some cases. I've heard about palm sugar, but don't know much about it. I'm also interested in researching pure cane syrup (I know this doesn't help you) b/c they sell it in our supermarkets here. I'm not sure of the processing yet though.

Lori said...

TN - I use a lot of mascavo sugar here. Is that the same as what you mentioned? I actually thought it was the same as our brown sugar, but just looked it up and saw that it is natural cane sugar, unprocessed. Interesting. Hmm...Maybe I'm getting a more natural sweetener than what I thought.

Ricki said...

Seems we can always find studies for or against pretty much anything, adding to the confusion. Over here, anyway, agave has been deemed a low GI (glycemic index) sweetener, much lower than maple syrup (which measures a GI of 98--only 2 points below white sugar). Have you seen this interview with the owner of Madhava?

Lori said...

Ricki - Thanks for sharing the interview. Another piece of valuable info.

A lot of people have been mentioning the GI. In my thinking it is expected that agave is a low on the GI because it is fructose. Since it is metabolized by the liver and goes there it isn't going to cause a spike in blood sugar.

Check out the interview that Ricki posted. One thing that caught my attention was the mention of "overconsumption" being the problem. The thing is, to me, most people overconsume because almost all packaged foods have HFCS in it. No, agave isn't processed the same way, but to the body it is fructose. Unless you eliminate all packaged foods the chance that HFCS is slipping into your diet is certain. Then adding another fructose sources could cause problems for the liver down the road.

Again, I'm not for or against it, just looking at the facts for myself. It isn't for me, but may be ideal for others.

Lori said...

I should have added that likewise you can find risks with the overconsumption of refined sugar.

I think we are back to the reduction of sweet period again. :)

cathy said...

What a great post! I've been curious about agave nectar since it seems to be all the rage, but I hadn't done anything to educate myself on it. You've told me all that I need to know!

I must say that I'm often amused (or maybe confused) by people who think that white sugar is evil because it is refined who will eat such things as molasses and brown sugar (both still refined in my book) and agave nectar just assuming that they are less refined and healthier. Are they? Maybe, but I'm like you - I think that white sugar is fine in moderation.

But, everyone's journey is different. Mine just happens to still include some refined sugars in there!

lesley said...

Ha, yes, it does seem that every avenue you take on this topic comes back to the reduction of sweet, period. A little at a time, I suppose ...

Jolene said...

I'm just not sure what I think of agave either...I don't like the fructose component and while I can't state any concrete evidence againist agave I don't think it is something to get really excited about. For me the HFCS and aspartame are the big no-no's but so much to learn and understand about the alternatives. Thanks for this post.

Lori said...

Cathy - Thanks. I think that is what concerns me most. Just the fact that people follow the crowd when something new comes along when really it isn't a better option healthwise. It may not be worse, but not better which is usually how it is perceived.

Lesley - Yes, for sure. I was going to say I think it is a little like choosing your poison, but maybe that is a little to negative. :) Ha, ha!

Jolene - I agree. I'm in the same boat. I'm interested to see if any research is being conducted on agave nectar specifically. Of course there is a lot on fructose, but all sources seem to be a little different.

ChefBliss.com said...

Lori, I would be interested to hear what you find out about the cane syrup. Because my BF cannot have cane sugar means, yes, we have gotten very creative, but I usually give myself a monthly treat with real sugar. I lived in Brazil from the ages of 7 to 9 and still miss many aspects of it. I remember very well chewing on the actual sugar cane, it was like candy -- probably not the healthiest but fun and tasty! :) I haven't used palm sugar yet, but I have been told you can grind it up (comes in a semi soft block) and use just like sugar. It seems to have the same nutritional properties as sugar. Look forward to your next post!

Lori said...

ChefBliss - How cool! You must have some great memories. I will let you know about the cane syrup when I get to checking it out a little more closely.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I fell for all the agave markting hype. I used it to make homemade icea cream and it's yummy. I'm SO disappointed that it's not a whole, natural food. :( Oh, well, there's always stevia... but impossible to bake with.

Lori said...

Anon - I know a lot of people who use it and are happy with it. I just wasn't convinced enough by my research to add it to my diet.

Anonymous said...

Lori,

You should check out www.nutritiondata.com and compare agave nectar especially raw to sugar and honey. Fructose is a natural, God created substance found in fruits like you said. Apples have a high concentration of fructose, but they are high in fiber.

As you will notice at nutritiondata.com with agave nectar that one of its positive aspects is that it is high in dietary fiber. That means the fiber prevents the fructose from being absorbed into your bloodstream just like an apple.

Also not the abundance of nutrients of agave compared to sugar. This website gives agave nectar a higher nutritional value than an apple, honey, and sugar.

Also note the inflammation factor. Sugar and Honey are highly inflammatory. Agave is not. Inflammation is the precursor to cancer and almost every negative health condition.

Lori said...

Thanks for the information. I'll check it out.