Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Bitter Truth About My Sweetener

. . . Of course, the truth of some of this may be up for debate, but here goes . . . .

So, I was looking for places to buy agave nectar online, thinking, perhaps rightly, that I can buy it in bulk and save money per ounce instead of buying it in the store and paying more per unit for a lot less. This is a valid consideration; agave nectar ain’t cheap, so you gotta want it mighty bad and like it mighty good to buy it at the prices you have to pay for it.

In searching for where I could get it for the best price, I came across some disturbing information: Seems that agave nectar isn’t the holy grail of sweeteners that so many make it out to be.

Here’s what I discovered in an article I saw: (1) All agave nectar isn’t pure agave nectar. Agave nectar, AKA agave syrup, comes from a type of cactus called agave. There are several different species from which agave nectar can be taken, but they all seem to have in common that they take 7-10 years to mature. The nectar is drawn from a part of the plant called the pina, which resembles a giant pineapple (considering that the Spanish word for pineapple is piƱa, this, and not pina, may be the actual word for the fruit of the agave). Because it takes so long for the agave to grow, some agave producers in Mexico have taken to mixing corn syrup with it to get more product. The problem with this is that while pure agave is considered a low-glycemic sweetener—meaning that it will not cause blood sugar spikes above a certain level—corn syrup is not low-glycemic. So depending on who manufactures the produce you use, you may be getting a higher blood sugar spike than you intended to pay for. Try to verify that the product you use has no corn syrup or other sweeteners added to it to be sure you’re getting pure agave nectar.

(2) Agave nectar is mostly fructose. This may not be that great a concern if you are at a healthy weight and don’t regularly consume many sweets beyond fruit. The issue here is in how fructose is metabolized in the body as opposed to the sucrose of which table sugar is mainly composed and which is so demonized for its effect on blood sugar. You’ve probably seen it before somewhere else, but you can stand the reminder. If this is news to you, pay attention. When sucrose is consumed in sufficient quantities, it can cause a high enough rise in your blood sugar levels that your pancreas pumps out a high level of insulin in order to balance out the levels. But it tends to want to overcompensate, so the blood sugar levels fall as quickly and as steeply as they rose, which is why some people have that “crash” feeling after the burst of energy from consuming whatever sweets they ate. Some people respond to this by eating more sugar, thus perpetuating the cycle of spiking and crashing. In time, either the pancreas cannot keep up with the insulin demands, or you become less responsive to it. This is how Type II diabetes happens. Agave nectar has been touted as a sweetener one can consume in moderation without having this spike-crash cycle they way you have it with sugar.

On the flip side, however, fructose, the sugar of which agave nectar is mostly composed, is metabolized in the liver, where it must either be used or it will be stored in the body as fat, whereas the very sucrose that causes the spike-crash cycle is metabolized in the blood and is not stored as readily in the body.

This becomes an instance of measuring one set of risks against another. If a person simply doesn’t want to begin or continue experiencing problems due to the spike-crash cycle associated with consumption of other sweeteners, and this person generally eats a balanced diet and is in good health, agave nectar is probably a good choice for the benefit it offers. However, no sweetener is good in excess, not even agave nectar. If you’re already overweight, it may be worth it to limit all sweeteners, including agave nectar, and derive your sugar from whole, fresh fruit and fruit smoothies. If you have diabetes already, but your doctor permits you to eat agave nectar, it is wise to consume the least amount you need at any given time and continue monitoring your blood sugar to be sure the amount you use doesn’t raise your levels too high.

(3) This next point is mostly for vegans and “living” food consumers, which I am not, and it has to do with the agave nectar product sold as “raw”. For living food consumers, any food cooked past a temperature of 118 degrees is considered to be no longer living, because many healthful benefits in foods are thought to be lost if they are heated beyond this point. The higher the temperature, and the longer that temperature is sustained, the fewer healthful benefits remain at the end of the cooking. Some producers will cook agave nectar to temperatures as low as 250 degrees and as high as 450. So it becomes important to living food consumers that they get their agave nectar from a producer who will not cook it at a temperature higher than 118 degrees. The problem, according to the article I read, is that the nectar must be heated in order to concentrate it into a syrup, rather like maple sap is heated to concentrate it; because in its original state straight from the cactus, agave nectar isn’t really very sweet at all. Beyond this, if it were not cooked into a syrup, agave nectar would ferment into tequila—which is the original reason agave was cultivated and the nectar collected.

So, after reading all this and having a few days since then to think on it, what are my conclusions? Some of them I’ve already stated. If (1) a person is already healthy and eats a well-balanced diet free of an excess of sweeteners of any kind, (2) the product is purchased from a reputable producer who sells pure agave nectar, and (3) a person is comfortable with knowing the pros and cons of consuming the product, this will likely not be an issue, as long as it doesn’t violate any self-imposed rules or standards of consumption. Me, I like that I don’t have to worry about the spike-crash I would get with other sweeteners, it is currently my only commonly-used sweetener, and I try to be careful about how much of it I consume in a day. Plus, if I was forced to give it up for an artificial sweetener, such as saccharine, aspartame, or sucralose, all of which I dislike, the alternative for me would be no sweeteners at all, because I would refused to eat artificial sweeteners on any regular basis, my tendency being to avoid them altogether. So I’m still willing to shell out the money to buy the agave nectar.

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