During this Reduce the Refined Sugars week, it’s worth taking a look at some of the newer-on-the-market “natural” sugars. There are many bloggers who have done comprehensive posts on all the natural sugars, and since I haven’t really experimented with most of them, I’ll defer to their expertise (links at the bottom of the post). Stevia and agave nectar or syrup are two that deserve special mention, mostly because there is some controversy both about how natural, unprocessed and traditional they are and how safe they are to consume.
Agave: A Natural Sweetener?
Agave nectar or agave syrup is made from the juices or sap of the agave plant from Mexico, a relative to the yucca in my garden that will not die. The process reminds me of maple syrup, because once the juice is collected from the plant, it is first filtered, then heated to increase the sweetness and make a syrup texture. In maple syrup making, it’s called caramelizing. I’m guessing it’s about the same here.
The process of breaking down the complex sugars into simple sugars is called hydrolyzing, which sent this writer into fits about the unsafe processed food that is agave nectar. However, hydrolyzing is pretty similar to dissolving, and it’s what our bodies would have to do to complex sugars in order to digest them. I’m not convinced it’s evil; that said, the fructose in agave nectar is then made more easily assimilated into our systems. You can read a list of the dangers of too much fructose here.
Agave is deemed as a good, wholesome sweetener by many because it comes from a plant and has a low glycemic index. On the other hand, it’s very high (up to 95%) fructose content can result in some questionable side effects. High fructose corn syrup, by comparison, has 55% fructose. The processing may be done at very high heats, which raw foodists don’t like and can sometimes damage health benefits.
There are always two sides to every coin.
A commenter shared: Actually if you really look into it, there IS raw agave nectar. Just because there is people giving agave nectar a bad rap doesn’t mean we need to not use any at all. There is a lot of bad things said about honey but they are talking about the processed honey not raw. Should all honey be eschewed because of what we hear. Same with agave.
For example, Wild Organics sells a raw agave that is processed at 113 degrees, under the 118 at which enzymes die. In this case, I’m thinking it’s as natural as maple syrup. ???
Here is Nourished Kitchen’s take: When Natural Foods Aren’t Natural. She makes a good point that agave was only discovered/invented in the 1990s, so it’s a far cry from a traditional food. If it had been made in a lab, I would not bother with it because it hadn’t been tested long enough. Therefore, personally I don’t use agave because (a) it’s fairly new and untested and (b) there’s enough controversy to make the premium price not worth my budget.
Stevia: What’s in that Little Herb?
Stevia is even more conflicting in its history. It’s either been used by millennia by the Chinese, centuries in South America, or 30 years in Japan, depending on your source. It’s a green herb whose leaves are 70-400 times as sweet as sugar. Because it can have a bitter aftertaste and people don’t really buy into green things being sweet, it’s often processed into a clear liquid or a white powder.
Most would say if you’re going to use stevia, try to find the crushed green leaves to be as close to its natural state as possible. You could also simply grow a stevia plant in a pot and dry and crush your own leaves.
The serious benefit of stevia is that it has zero calories and no impact on glycemic index. You only need a pinch to sweeten a cup of coffee or bowl of yogurt. That’s a powerful sweetener!
The one caveat with stevia is that there are some – perhaps just two – studies that show that it may have contraceptive effects. Because of that, even if it’s only a slight chance, I won’t allow my children, especially my daughter, to consume it. I have some, only because I was trying to get my husband to stop putting sugar in his yogurt, so I purchased some little packets, and then I won a great big giveaway package from NuNaturals. We are using it, sparingly, but will keep in mind the possible side effects. This source (link no longer available) claims stevia is very safe and not a contraceptive at all. Here’s another fairly balanced source.
UPDATE: I’ve done more research as part of the Sweet, Sweet Summer series. Read more on the facts about stevia.
There are a few other “new” sweeteners, like xylitol and erythritol, both made from corn, I believe. Anyone have any info on those?
Other bloggers talk natural sweeteners:
- The Nourishing Gourmet
- Heavenly Homemakers
- Kelly the Kitchen Kop
- Nourished Kitchen
- Passionate Homemaking
Want to hear something funny? I was trying to make soaked banana cranberry muffins yesterday, and I only had 1/4 cup of white sugar left in the whole house! It’s like Monday Mission karma – if I believed in that sort of thing. 😉