Sweetener Update: Agave and Stevia

Wednesday 08th, April 2009 / 00:35

agave-picOne of the big trends in food is the move away from processed foods with chemical additives to more natural foods. Since there is no legal food definition for the word natural, let say it’s a movement back to foods closer to the way they exist in nature. This trend is true for sweeteners as well. There are many new sweeteners on the market as you notice every time you go to the grocery store. Let’s take a quick look at two ….agave nectar and stevia. Google and you’ll find loads of information but many times the hype is full of misinformation versus evidence-based science. Here’s the lowdown on these two sweeteners so you can separate fact from fiction.

Agave nectar also called agave syrup is a sweetener from the Mexican cactus. You will find it in all types of food products ranging from nutrition bars to drinks and desserts. It’s one of 2009’s trendy flavors and a trendy sugar alternative frequently used in cocktails. Agave has been touted for its delicate taste and is popular with chefs for use in desserts as well as to sweeten teas and health drinks. It’s one more choice to be included among honey, maple syrup, sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

Is agave better for you than any other sweetener such as sugar, maple syrup or honey? Agave is promoted as a low glycemic alterative for diabetics. Is it? If you’re diabetic or have friends or family members who are, you don’t want to miss this. Here’s why. Agave and sugar have approximately the same number of calories….about 16 per teaspoon. Agave is sweeter than sugar so you could save a few calories by the amount you use. Sugar is technically called sucrose which is composed of 50% fructose and 50% glucose when it is broken down in the body. Agave varies in its fructose content with a range from 55% up to 90%. It all depends on the processing method used which can affect the fructose content. Agave nectar with 55% fructose is about the same as high fructose corn syrup so there would be no benefit in agave at 55% fructose over sugar, high fructose corn syrup or honey from the standpoint of composition, only taste and personal preference.

The reason you hear …theoretically… agave nectar touted as safer for diabetics is that a higher fructose composition typically doesn’t cause dangerous spikes in blood glucose. Currently, we don’t have clinical studies as to agave’s safety in diabetes. Unless there is a label stating the exact percentage of fructose in the agave nectar, it can range as we just talked about from 55% up. So if you are diabetic, your blood glucose may or may not be spiked…all depending on how much fructose is in the particular agave product consumed and your particular case of diabetes. Plus fructose sweeteners may increase blood triglycerides if you have diabetes so be sure and discuss this with your health care provider.

Stevia falls into the noncaloric sweetener category. Stevia extract comes from the Stevia rebaudiana plant, an herb native to Central and South America. Stevia is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar with a slightly bitter aftertaste depending on the plant components used. This bitter aftertaste is the reason you may find stevia blended with other ingredients.

For example, some stevia products are often blended or ‘cut’ with a sugar alcohol called erythritol found naturally in vegetables and fruit so the product is less sweet than pure stevia. Erythritol is not metabolized or absorbed so it doesn’t spike blood glucose levels or cause the gas or bloating of some sugar alcohols like sorbitol or mannitol. Most of the products work well for people with diabetes but it’s smart to read the label and see what stevia is blended with and if the product has calories. Expect to see stevia used as a sweetener in many products and sold as a tabletop sweetener under various names.

Stevia and agave are just two of the many new sweeteners on the market. If you have diabetes, be sure and check the labels closely before you make a decision on which ones to try. 

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