Thursday, September 04, 2014

AGAVE - Articles by a Naturopathic Doctor ( N.D.)

Agave – the low glycemic natural sweetener!

Agave is a popular natural sweetener that has been the subject of recent controversy. Read on to learn why agave is a great alternative to sugar, what the controversy is all about and how to use it as a substitute in recipes.        

What is Agave?
Add agave to coffee or tea for a sweet
taste that won’t spike your blood sugar.
Agave is a natural alternative to sugar, which is produced from Agave tequilana. More commonly known as Blue Agave, this plant is native to Southern Mexico and yes, it’s the same plant tequila is made from! After growing for 5-7 years, the core of the Blue Agave is harvested and then pressed and filtered to release inulin rich juice, which gives agave its unique sweetening properties.

Since inulin is not naturally sweet, agave must undergo one more processing step. It is either heated to 161°F to transform the juice into sweet agave syrup, or it can undergo a raw processing step using a low heat or enzymatic reactions to create sweet agave syrup. Ultimately, this processing step transforms the inulin into fructose, which is a simple sugar.

How Does Agave Work?
Agave is a natural source of inulin, which is a dietary fib    er, made up of complex carbohydrates. Once it is heated or hydrolyzed, the inulin is converted into fructose and glucose, which gives agave syrup its sweetness. In agave syrup, there is approximately 75% fructose, 20% glucose and small amounts of inulin.

Agave syrup is considered “low glycemic” due to its high fructose content. Having a lower glycemic index means that agave will not cause a spike in your blood sugar. Nevertheless, agave syrup is a natural sugar and should not be confused with artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners. One teaspoon of agave has approximately 20 calories, whereas one teaspoon of table sugar has about 15 calories. Moderation is important when using any natural sugar.

Interestingly, some companies have developed a sugar crystal form of agave, called agave sugar. Agave sugar is processed differently than agave syrup, in order to preserve the inulin. Gentle hydrolysis allows the inulin to be converted to oligofructose, which is then crystallized and milled into a fine consistency. The oligofructose in agave sugar is not broken down in the small intestine, thus making it low glycemic as well. In the colon, oligofructose is a prebiotic, meaning it feeds the healthy bacteria in the intestine and studies show that oligofructose stimulates the growth of intestinal bifidobacteria.

What is it Used For?
Agave is used as a natural sweetener and is an excellent alternative to using sugar or artificial sweeteners. Since agave has a low glycemic index, it is useful if you are following a low glycemic diet, are diabetic, suffer from hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) and insulin resistance. It can be useful in a weight management program, as low glycemic foods are less likely to trigger the body’s mechanisms for fat storage. Remember, agave is a natural sugar and is not meant for indiscriminate consumption, but can be extremely useful as a substitute for sugar and is used in many healthy recipes to increase food options for those who are trying to lose weight.

Interestingly, some cane sugars are filtered using bone char, which is an animal based bone charcoal. The processing of agave does not use bone char and is completely vegan, a great choice for those whose diets and lifestyle choices exclude all animal products.

The controversy surrounding agave has to do with its comparison to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS has varying ratios of fructose to glucose and is usually a mixture of nearly equal amounts of fructose and glucose. The corn syrup, which is genetically modified (GMO), undergoes highly secretive enzymatic processing techniques to covert the naturally occurring sucrose in corn syrup to fructose and glucose. The free, unbound form of fructose that was not naturally present in the corn syrup is rapidly absorbed into the blood stream and goes right to the liver to produce triglycerides and cholesterol. This process causes a “fatty liver”, which has become an epidemic in North America. HFCS also depletes ATP, the cellular energy molecule that maintains the integrity of our intestinal walls. If that is not disturbing enough, HFCS may contain contaminates, such as mercury!

The ultimate problem with HFCS is its widespread use in processed foods and sugary beverages. It is hidden in most packaged foods (read your labels!), so as a population we are getting a regular, incredibly high dose of HFCS, which is contributing to obesity, increased appetite, cardiovascular disease and diabetes to name a few.

Comparatively, agave goes through minimal processing (only one step) and contains a naturally occurring fructose, which is unlike the chemically processed type of unbound fructose. Meaning, the fructose in agave behaves differently than the fructose in high fructose corn syrup. Agave is comparable to honey and maple syrup, which has naturally occurring blends of fructose and glucose. Also, agave is not genetically modified and is not a crop that is subsidized by the U.S. government like corn is. This means that the agave industry is not putting small farms out of business.

How do you use Agave?
Agave is available most commonly in syrup form; however some companies have a sugar crystal form available. Agave syrup is comparable to honey and maple syrup. Its consistency and texture is thinner than honey, but thicker than maple syrup. In terms of taste, honey can be described as having a floral honey flavour and maple syrup has a more woody-sweet maple flavour; agave’s flavour is more pure and simply sweet, making it a great substitute for the simple sweet flavour of traditional sugar. Also, agave is 1.5 times sweeter than sugar.

Suggestions for replacing sugars with agave:

Honey and maple syrup – replace 1 cup of either honey or maple syrup with one cup of agave. You can use a 1:1 ratio with this substitution.

Corn Syrup – for one cup of corn syrup, substitute ½ to 1/3 cup of agave and increase other liquids in the recipe up to 1/3 of a cup.

White Sugar – Substitute one cup of white sugar with 2/3 of a cup of agave and reduce other liquids by ¼ to 1/3 of a cup.

Brown Sugar – use the same substitution for white sugar, however don’t reduce the liquids in the recipe because brown sugar has higher moisture content.

Agave syrup may cause baked items to brown more quickly; you may have to reduce the heat 15-25 degrees.

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