The holiday season always makes it painfully clear just how much sugar we as a society consume. Even things that sound like they'd otherwise be healthy, like the butternut squash casserole I made for Thanksgiving, where the recipe called for a whole cup of white sugar and a whole cup of brown sugar. Yikes!
So we tend to hone in on any new information on substitute sweeteners that are palatable and supposedly healthy. A lot of people are down on the chemical content of artificial sweeteners: those familiar little packets of Equal, Sweet N' Low and Splenda. So a lot of people are turning to plant-based alternatives, like stevia, and another possible substitute that's been coming up conversation a lot lately: agave syrup.
Ever heard of it? We'd be surprised if you hadn't. Everyone seems to think it's the ultimate solution for diabetics. We decided to do some digging about it, and what we found was pretty interesting.
Agave syrup is made from various types of agave plants, which are found in southern Mexico. The consistency and even the taste are comparable to honey. Interesting fact: If you ferment the blue agave plant, it actually turns into tequila (wow!). Otherwise, agave can be used to create a sweet syrup or "nectar" (the latter certainly sounds more benign and natural!)
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Many health food advocates believe agave is a perfect solution for PWDs because it's made of up to 90% fructose rather than sucrose, so it's much lower on the glycemic index and thus doesn't pack quite the same BG punch as table sugar. On top of that, agave nectar is much sweeter than sugar, so you can use a fraction of the amount in a recipe as you would with other sweeteners.
First of all, however, agave syrup is hardly a free food. A teaspoon comes with 20 calories and 5 grams of carbs — slow-releasing carbs, yes, but they're still there. In comparison, one teaspoon of regular sugar is 16 calories and 4 carbs. And the calories, for anyone who is watching their weight, can still add up if you're not careful. Each cup of sugar can be replaced by one-half to two-thirds cup of agave, so that can be quite a few teaspoons depending on your recipe.
Secondly, this supposedly low-GI option is not as easy on the blood sugars as it sounds, and it can actually wreak havoc on other areas of the body. Uh oh!
"It's almost all fructose, which is just highly processed sugar with great marketing," says Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, a Johns Hopkins professor and fellow of the American College of Nutrition, in a recent Chicago Tribune article.
What's so bad about fructose? That's the sugar in fruit, right? According to research, fructose found in fruit is perfectly fine, but fructose found in processed foods, like agave syrup, is bad because, as Kohlstadt says: "Fructose interferes with healthy metabolism when taken at higher doses. Many people have fructose intolerance like lactose intolerance. They get acne or worse diabetes symptoms even though blood glucose is OK."
And if the word "fructose" is reminding you of our frenemy high-fructose corn syrup, you're not off-base. HFCS is a mix of 55% fructose and 45% sucrose, and agave syrup products can contain up to 90% fructose.
There's quite a bit of debate among experts about the potential negative effects of fructose. A 2009 study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation states that fructose-sweetened beverages can cause weight gain and insulin resistance — certainly things we PWDs want to avoid!
Most of us have heard the warnings about high-fructose corn syrup, and seen the corn industry's slimy commercials purporting that it is "safe." Is fructose from the agave plant really much different than from corn syrup? Especially in such large (concentrated) quantities?
As it turns out, agave syrup may not even be that "natural" after all. The Weston A. Price Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to health and nutrition, states: "The process by which agave glucose and inulin (a water-soluble dietary fiber present in agave) are converted into 'nectar' is similar to the process by which corn starch is converted into HFCS. The agave starch is subject to an enzymatic and chemical process that converts the starch into a fructose-rich syrup — anywhere from 70% fructose and higher according to the chemical profiles posted on agave nectar websites."
But that doesn't mean some PWDs aren't enjoying and benefiting from agave. Jeff Cohen, a type 2, writes on the TuDiabetes forum: "I've had great success with Agave. I also like the taste, something most other sweeteners don't provide." He points out that most of the warnings he's seen were for a few particular brands of agave — Volcanic Nectar — accused of adding "fillers" like maltose, which have their own long list of ill effects. Jeff believes that "not all agave should be written off."
But Gerri, a type 1 PWD who does her own investigating, shares the same concerns we've raised here: "Agave may not increase your BG (assuming that's what you're referring to about great success), but it's not healthy regardless of the brand because it's fructose. The refined highly concentrated fructose in agave raises triglycerides, reduces the sensitivity of insulin receptors & has other negative effects."
On our DiabeticConnect community, the taste of agave seems to get two thumbs up, especially from folks who don't like the taste of artificial sweeteners. Marley, a type 1 PWD, wrote in, "I just tried agave nectar for the first time in my banana/peanut butter smoothie this morning. Yum!"
But KDRoberts, another type 1, just couldn't get over the comparisons to high fructose corn syrup: "I can take it or leave it, leaning towards the leave end of the spectrum. It's still a sugar but unlike most, has a very high concentration of fructose which is linked to raise triglycerides, belly fat and insulin resistance. Some agave is not really that different to high fructose corn syrup."
Has anyone else tried agave? It seems to us that pretty much every artificial sweetener or sugar substitute has some kind of major drawback — which offsets the notion of avoiding sugar itself! The only one that seems safe is stevia, but many folks don't like aftertaste of that one. What — if anything — are you all using to bake your holiday cookies or sweeten your morning Cup of Joe?