Natural Sweetener Smack Down: Agave
9 March 2011
Human beings are built with a taste for sweetness – it’s in our DNA. We crave sweetness because mother’s milk is sweet, and we’re programmed to crave sweet carbohydrates so that the human species will survive. When we were all still living off the land, hunting and gathering in the wilderness, sweet foods were safe to eat – poisonous foods are generally bitter.
In the last 200 years, humans have gotten really good at growing crops that can be made into sugar. The cheap, abundant bags and bottles of sweetness have led us into a dire health situation. Americans get most of their calories from sweeteners. They also get many diseases from added sugars. Sugar isn’t bad, it’s just that we tend eat too much of it.
The current epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity is directly linked to humans’ recent ability to produce huge amounts of refined carbohydrates from corn, sugar cane, and from a lesser extent maple trees, honey combs, and cacti. But some sweeteners make life interesting, food taste good, and make birthday cake delicious.
It gets confusing when we try to wade through all the conflicting information about how much sugar is safe to eat, which sweeteners are healthier, and which ones are dangerous over time. Now let me start off by saying that I don’t think you’re going to keel over if you have a cup of coffee with two packets of white table sugar. But do that three times a day for 20 years and you’ll start to see some health problems develop.
I do my best to use more natural sweeteners. “Natural” and “unprocessed” are loaded terms. By “natural” I mean less processed and as unrefined as possible. I try to use sweeteners that are made from plants and are only slightly cooked, dried or crystallized using as few steps as possible. If I can’t understand the process it took to create something, I’m less likely to eat it. I also avoid sweeteners that were made in a lab or chemically derived like splenda, aspartame, saccharin, high fructose corn syrup, and so on.
That being said, I love a good dark chocolate or a creamy rice pudding and I’m only human after all – so I do enjoy desserts. I just eat a lot less sugar than I used to, and I feel better now than I did in my early 20’s.
So, I’m putting together a series on natural sweeteners to help people understand the benefits, drawbacks, and uses of the different options lining the health food store aisles.
The first contender had a meteoric rise to fame in the health food world since it’s introduction in the last 10 years, but is currently experiencing a negative backlash. Agave, alternatively known as “agave nectar” and “agave syrup,” comes from cactus native to Mexico. If you took that same syrup and fermented it you would eventually get Mexico’s other famous liquid, tequila.
In small doses of less than a teaspoon, agave was believed to have little affect on blood sugar levels, and was thought to be safe for diabetics. However, people rarely use less than a teaspoon of sweeteners, and there are other factors that should give diabetics pause. Agave is also very high in fructose – about as high as high fructose corn syrup. Since all that fructose is hard for your liver to metabolize, anyone with liver issues should avoid using agave as their main sweetener. Fructose elevates triglycerides and gets stored as body fat. So if you have high cholesterol concerns, avoid agave.
Agave isn’t made from corn, which is a common food allergen. Also, high fructose corn syrup has been shown to contain traces of mercury from the processing facilities where it is produced. Unlike other metals and trace elements (copper, zinc) you DON’T need any mercury in your body! Now the Corn Refiners Association is trying to get permission from the federal government to allow them to change labeling laws so that HFCS can be labeled as “corn sugar,” which would be much more appealing to consumers. Corn Sugar – sounds safe and friendly, doesn’t it?
So when it comes to using agave, I prefer to use it in small amounts for recipes that need a good liquid sweetener that doesn’t add extra flavor. Maple syrup is often to maple-y, and brown rice syrup is too thick for some recipes. I like to add agave to my Iced Teeccino Latte in the summers, and here’s my recipe for this delicious caffeine-free beverage:
Iced Teeccino Latte
2 tablespoons teeccino or 2 teeccino bags
2 cups unsweetened rice, hemp, or soy milk
2 teaspoons agave
1 cup ice
- Place the ground Teeccino in a tea strainer and set in a tea pot or 20 ounce mug.
- Pour the milk in the pot or mug and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. The milk will absorb the flavor of the Teeccino while chilling.
- Remove the pot from the refrigerator and remove the tea strainer.
- Pour the steeped Teeccino milk into 2 glasses. Add 1 teaspoon agave into each cup and stir well to melt the agave.
- Add ½ cup ice to each cup and serve chilled.