Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Good, The Bad, The Agave

My Sweet Thoughts: Part Two

The Good, The Bad, The Agave
My Sweet Thoughts:
Part Two

            Like so many people I jumped on the agave nectar bandwagon the moment I heard about it. So many of my natural, healthy, organic friends suggested it to me. I must say, I joined the bandwagon ignorantly which is, well...ignorant. It wasn’t until months later when I decided to embark on a research journey of my own. Though what I gather is only my amateur opinion, I  will say that I invested a significant amount of time in trying to get to the root of agave. 
             Agave is a natural growing plant most commonly found in mexico. Specifically, the Blue Agave plant is used most often to produce agave nectar, this is also the same plant that tequila is derived from. The plant resemble cactus but it is actually a succulent. The heart of the plant, the pina, is surrounded by spiny leaves and after they have been removed the sap can be extracted from the pina. 
                The sap is then heated and filtered. The amount of heating and filtration the sap goes through determines weather the finished product will be a dark or light in color. The final product is agave nectar or agave syrup. The darker colored agave nectar has a richer taste that is more similar to honey or maple syrup. The lighter colored syrup, to me, resembles a taste similar to corn syrup. 
         Regarding taste, agave nectar is an fine alternative to refined sugar. I have used agave nectar to sweeten homemade whip cream, coffee, and tea. I prefer the natural taste of honey, so I tend to also enjoy the taste of agave nectar. 
         Through this process I have learned that, similar to honey, not all agave nectar is created equal. There are a lot of different opinions about agave nectar and I have found an equal amount of information both supporting and opposing agave nectar. 
            The most important thing about agave nectar is choosing one that is raw. Technically, to be raw the agave sap must not be processed over 118 degrees fahrenheit.  The importance of raw agave nectar is all the enzymes and nutrients are left in tact so that we consume them our bodies can use them, making agave nectar a food that “gives back.” The problem I found with this is that there seems to be a lot of controversy about to what tempter they actually heat agave in production. 
         Some raw agave nectars claim to be processed under 118 degrees fahrenheit and whether or not they actually are remains a mystery as any company can label something as “raw.” Some claim that the agave nectar is heated to at least 140 degrees  fahrenheit, which would negate the raw. 
         When agave syrup ferments it will turn into alcohol. Remember, this same plant also produces tequila. So the enzymic activity must be stopped so that the syrup will not ferment sitting on the supermarket shelf or in your kitchen. So if you are consuming agave nectar under the assumption it is a raw food then you may want to think again, because it just may not be.
     Agave nectar is not necessarily a “healthier” alternative to sugar. Yes, agave is not refined as much as sugar and certainly isn’t bleached, the fact is that it might not actually be raw. If indeed, agave nectar is not raw then it isn’t giving anything back to our bodies and is no better for our bodies, nutritionally, than sugar. 
       Be careful when choosing agave nectar because some companies have been found to mix corn syrup in with agave nectar. So what you think you may be consuming is in fact very different. Agave nectar is not low in calories and in fact, contains about the same amount of calories as sugar. However, agave nectar is much sweeter than sugar so less is needed to achieve desired sweetness (similar to honey). Perhaps, you are using an amount that would lower your caloric intake but probably not by much.
              Agave nectar is 90% fructose and only 10% glucose. Glucose is processed through the pancreas which is why agave nectar is considered low on the glycemic index, and is considered (by some) to be a safe alternative for diabetics. However, fructose is processed though the liver and at 90% fructose the liver can’t break this down as sugar fast enough so it begins processing and storing it as fat. 

         There is also a small concern, it seems, among a small group of people concerned that the use of agave nectar could have negative effects on pregnant women. Agave nectar contains natural steroids that could lead to miscarriages. Some believe this issue to be so small that it isn’t a concern. Still, some believe that pregnant women should avoid agave nectar. 
        I think that agave nectar is probably a better alternative than refined sugar but I still believe organic raw honey is better than agave.  I was sad and disappointed to learn  all these negative facts about agave and have decided to cut back on my agave nectar use. My personal verdict on agave nectar now lies somewhere in the middle between the evil corn syrup and the nectar of the gods, honey.  It is certainly better than artificial sweeteners. 
     Just be careful and mindful of agave because it might not be as healthy as you think. Hopefully, in ten years we will have much more information available about agave and we consumers will be able to form more informed decision

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Good, The Bad, The Honey

My Sweet Thoughts: Part One: Honey


         Sick and tired about listening to friends warn me of the safety and healthiness of honey, agave nectar, and stevia, I decided to educate myself. Not surprisingly it is difficult to find credible and non-biased opinions. After spending hours and days scouring the internet I finally came to these conclusions only for my own health. 
     As I choose to live a different food lifestyle ( I am a pesceterian ), I often find that people are judgmental about my decision. After seeing how rudely people responded to my personal food habits I decided I would never impose my decisions on them. For instance, I believe that not eating steroid injected, antibiotic infused, cooped up for it’s entire life in a tiny box beef, is not something I am comfortable with. However, I am in no position to tell someone else it is unhealthy and inhumane of them to continue consuming that meat. If people act interested I love to share my opinions on food and health. But that is all I have, opinions. 
      So I am targeting three sweeteners which I feel have a lot of incorrect information  floating around concerning them. The first of which is honey. The other day someone told me they avoided honey because of all the negative associations with it. Curious, as I had never learned of such, I went looking for myself. 
      As it turns out, honey has almost the same amount of calories as sugar. So, as it pertains to weight loss you might not see many results by switching from sugar to honey. While a teaspoon of honey actually contains more calories than a teaspoon of sugar, honey is much sweeter and therefore less is needed to achieve the desired sweetness. Because less honey is used, the same amount, or sometimes even a smaller amount, of calories are consumed. So, if it’s calories you are focused on then now you understand that honey is no worse than sugar calorically. 
      Not all honey is created equal, this is what I have come to realize. Most of the honey bought at the supermarket is multiple-pollen honey and some of it is even mixed with corn syrup. Bee’s generally stick to one type of pollen therefore the honey they produce will be from only a few types of pollen, and it will be limited to their local pollens. When buying cheaper and mass marketed honey, multiple types of honeys are mixed together. Buying local honey is one of the best ways to ensure you get honey made from local pollens ( I will explain the importance of this later.) Also, often super market honey is mixed with corn syrup, which is unacceptable, as the consumer is often not consuming what they think they are. 
     Also, it is important to find raw honey. Without raw honey there is really no point in consuming honey and there are little benefits over refined sugar. Raw honey is cloudy and milky and contains chunks of honeycomb and wax and occasionally bee fragments. I know, it sounds gross, but trust me the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Most honey we are used to seeing and buying has been heated through pasteurization and filtered, which produces that clear and golden color we associate with honey. The problem with pasteurization is that heating the honey kills some of the natural enzymes and nutrients. So basically, if you are eating non-raw honey you are mostly consuming the sugar and not reaping the benefits. Raw honey is also has antiseptic properties which make it great for a sore throat. 
      The most important thing to remember when choosing honey is raw, raw, raw! The best part about any raw living food is the enzymes which our bodies absorb and use. Once a food is heated, some or all of the enzymes are killed and our bodies don’t absorb them. 
      The second most important thing to remember when choosing honey is local. Don’t worry, if you can’t find local raw honey, non-local honey will do just fine. However, the benefits to local raw honey are great. Bee’s only have the ability to gather local pollen and by gathering local pollen the honey is made from those pollens that sometimes cause allergies. Consuming honey made with local pollens can actually lower allergic reactions to those pollens contained within the honey. It’s natures allergy remedy. 
      Not only can consuming local pollen help out with it allergy season rolls around but it also stimulates local economy, cuts down on wasteful transportation, and boycotts corporations. 
      Just to put everyone at ease, I also searched for drawbacks and negative reactions to honey. I was surprised to find limited information on this. It seems that negative reactions to honey are rare. Honey allergies do exist and honey should be avoided by anyone with a honey allergy. However, only 2%-3% of the united states population suffers from honey allergies. Surprised? I was.Chances are you are not one of the people who suffers from honey allergies and if you are then you probably already know of it, and should avoid honey. 
      The only other negative association I found with honey was infant botulism. Clostridium Botulism spores are present in both honey and corn syrup. Basically, infants bodies are unable to deal with botulism spores and they reproduce rapidly leading to severe symptoms and even fatal ones. That is why honey should never be given to a child under the age of one. In children over one and in adults the botulism spores very, very, rarely cause botulism because our bodies deal with them and the spores do not reproduce, as they do in infants. So again, this is another side effect you are very unlikely to experience. 
      With raw honey we are dealing with a natural and living substance which our bodies easily absorb. One of the reasons our bodies so easily deal with honey is because it has already been digested by the bees, making it much easier for us to digest. That may sound disgusting but it’s a far better process than what refined sugar goes through.
      While brown sugar retains some nutrients, refined white sugar has none and to top it all off it goes through chemical processes to refine it. Proteins, fats, enzymes, and vitamins that would be found in cane juice are all killed by the refining process. There is no way that refined white sugar can exist without being demineralized, because it won’t crystalize. To obtain sugar from cane juice, it goes through a process where it is either treated with sulphur or heated with bisulphide of lime. Chemicals! Give me a bee wing any day! By the way did I mention that refined white sugar is bleached? More chemicals! 
      Sugar has managed to get a bad wrap in our society, it is accused of causing obesity, diabetes, acne, arthritis, and much more. So we Americans, rush out to find things that are low in sugar or contains artificial sweeteners (which I will also address later.) However, it’s only the refined sugars that are truly awful for us. Honey, like everything else should be consumed in moderation. But the majority of our daily sugars should be consumed from fruits and vegetables. Those sugars are the simplest to digest and the ones that “give back” to our systems. 
      Something important to look for in all foods, not just honey, are foods that give back. Natural and raw with living enzymes and nutrients. There are negative and positive things to be said of every consumable product, specifically if you listen to the propaganda put forth by large corporations.
       I am so angered by the television commercials that say high fructose corn syrup is as good as honey. High fructose corn syrup is refined and processed even more than sugar, and denaturing foods makes them unstable to our bodies. Let us pass over the new studies that show many batches of high fructose corn syrup contain mercury and on to other issues. Fructose, in small amounts, actually helps our bodies digest glucose, the problem is we are consuming so much fructose that our bodies turn it directly into fat. Glucose (found in sugar) is processed through the pancreas but fructose is processed through the liver and when so much high fructose is consumed the liver can’t turn it into sugar fast enough so it begins turning it into fats (which are stored most commonly on our butts, thighs, and waistline.) 
       While fructose is found naturally in fruits (and in honey) it is found in small doses that our bodies break down quickly. Honey contains both fructose and glucose which, we know from earlier: the fructose helps our bodies process glucose. High fructose corn syrups and refined sugars are also addictive and we experience a wave of endorphins when we consume them. We also experience elevated energy levels, however when the wave crashes so do our moods and energy levels. Our brain tells us to consume more sugar to experience that rush of endorphins and energy surge again and the cycle continues. 
       I’m not saying people should eat a jar of honey a day. Honey should be consumed in moderation and should just be considered a safer alternative to processed high fructose corn syrups and refined sugars. However, the fact that raw honey contributes to our bodies makes it healthier. So unless you are one of the 2%-3% of all Americans who suffer from honey allergies there is no need to worry.