One of the hardest things to do when making healthy diet and lifestyle changes is giving up sweets. It's not surprising, considering the fact that sweets taste great while causing blood sugar spikes that only last long enough for us to find our next sugar fix. They're also readily available; every cafeteria and vending machine is packed with sugary "goodness" that tastes great and provides no nutritional value whatsoever.
To "aid" dieters, manufacturers have created a slew of "sugar substitutes" that are supposed to give us a sweet fix while withholding calories. As we've learned more about the dangers of Sweet N Lo, Equal and Splenda, we've turned to other, natural sources for our sugar fix. The latest sweetener to go viral as a safe and healthy alternative to both sugar and artificial sweeteners is agave nectar. Agave, according to its proponents:
- Scores low on the glycemic index, making it preferable to sugar
- Is 1 1/2 times as sweet as sugar, so dieters can use less of it to obtain the same sweetness, thus cutting calories
- Is a naturally derived plant product, making it preferable to processed table sugar and high fructose corn syrup
In fact, many agave fans argue that it's preferable to stevia, since stevia can leave an aftertaste some dieters find unpleasant.
Agave nectar comes from the agave plant. There are multiple species of agave plant, but the majority of agave nectar is harvested from Blue agave, the same plants used to make tequila. Agave nectar owes its low score on the glycemic index to fructose, the sugar found in fruit, which does not cause sudden spikes in blood pressure. Agave nectar also has around 60 calories per tablespoon - table sugar has 40 - so dieters can use less of it.
Unfortunately,there are a whole host of reasons to avoid agave:
- "Natural" is relative: Many agave manufacturers advertise their product as "natural agave syrup" or "natural agave nectar." The US doesn't have standards defining what natural is (just as they didn't specify what "organic" meant for a while). The designation of "natural" is left to the manufacturers, and while they are legally prohibited from lying, they also have an incentive to tout their product as natural, whether it is or not.
- Many brands are highly processed: When extracted from the agave plant, the agave nectar is watery. To turn it into a syrup or nectar, thickening agents are added. Additionally, as with most processing, nutrients that are generally present in plant based extracts are destroyed, leaving fructose. And...
- Fructose is linked to obesity: You can pretty much chart the American obesity epidemic as starting when we started adding high fructose corn syrup to processed food, and watch our collective weight increase as it was added to more and more products. Since you're already getting fructose in fruit, you want to limit any added fructose in your diet. Many brands of agave actually have more fructose than high fructose corn syrup.
If you do find an unpleasant aftertaste in stevia, you're better off avoiding sweeteners entirely. Try to retrain your palate to do without sweetness. Or grab a piece of fruit, which has enough sweetness to tide you over and healthy antioxidants and nutrients. You also have a couple of other options including raw honey and maple syrup. These give meaning to "a little goes a long way".