September 4, 2007

You Ask, I Answer: Agave Nectar/Syrup

One of my friends swears by agave nectar.

She says it’s the best sweetener to use because it doesn’t spike your blood sugar and isn’t refined.

What do you think?

-- Leah Strentle
Palo Alto, CA

A few years ago, agave nectar became a trendy health food, mainly for the reasons you cite.

Vegans have long known about it, as it is a plant-based sweetener used in place of honey or white sugar (which is usually filtered with charcoal made from animal bones).

It is indeed diabetic friendly since it does not spike blood glucose levels as much as pure sucrose (table sugar).

Keep in mind, though, that if managing blood glucose levels is a concern, you can also think about pairing "high glycemic" foods with lower ones.

For instance, drizzling some olive oil over a potato (a food with a high glycemic index) and eating it alongside a grilled chicken breast (a food with a low glycemic index) will not spike your blood sugar as much as if you were eating the potato completely by itself.

At the end of the day, agave nectar is a sweetener.

Remember, all sweeteners have 4 calories per gram. So, dowsing your pancakes in 4 tablespoons of agave syrup (or any non-diet sweetener, for that matter) will add 192 calories to your meal.

Agave nectar's advantage, though, is that since it is sweeter than table sugar, you need less agave than you would sugar to achieve the same level of sweetness.

When baking, I find that when a recipe calls for a certain amount of table sugar, I can instead use half that amount of agave nectar without sacrificing taste (resulting in a finished product with several hundred fewer calories.)

It is also worth pointing out that the reason why agave nectar ranks so low on the glycemic index is because it is mainly composed of fructose.

Earlier this summer, researchers at the University of California at Davis compared the effects of drinking fructose-based versus sucrose-based beverages over a 10 week period on overweight adults.

The results? Those drinking fructose-based beverages had higher triglyceriude and LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels than those drinking beverages with a higher percentage of sucrose.

I am not “knocking” agave nectar (again, I use it often when baking) but rather evening out the sweetener playing field.

At the end of the day, keep this in mind: humans have been eating white table sugar for thousands of years. We know very well what sugar does to the body, since we’ve had the chance to study it for so long.

Sugar in and of itself is not the devil. After all, it has been around for much longer than skyrocketing obesity rates, so rationalizing a strict avoidance of it as a "health issue" seems extreme to me.

The problem is that people are eating too much of it!

My thoughts? If you like the taste of sugar and have it in small amounts (no more than 30 or so grams a day), keep enjoying it.

Similarly, if agave is your sweetener of choice, go ahead and enjoy it -- but always be mindful of how much you use.

It should not get the label of a "health food" simply because it is less refined than table sugar.

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