The argument about Agave

I have to say that I am very excited that more and more people want to talk about giving up sugar, or at least cutting down on it and finding alternatives. Recently I've had the pleasure of talking shop with a well known Vegan baker from the western part of the state. She's been getting requests for all sorts of dietary discretions- like gluten free, for example- and has also been asked to make 'sugar free' delights, or at least sugar alternative.

So we chatted in the kitchen at a friend's party about alternatives. My own journey to this point began many years ago with a conversion over to 'alternative sugar'. These consist of barley malt, agave syrup, brown rice syrup, sucanat (the stuff they strip off the white sugar), maple syrup, date sugar, and honey. There are even several cookbooks out there devoted to "naturally sweet" desserts, focused entirely on using these products. I definitely encourage people who want to break away from white sugar slowly to go down this path; it's still sugar, yes, but there are merits to the method. It worked for me to help me wean off and become more aware of what I was taking into my body.

Of course, it is easy to trade one addiction for another- you can overindulge on 'alternative' sugar as easily as the white stuff. All things in moderation. However, many alternatives are whole foods (like date sugar, for example) and take a little longer to break down, with the added bonus of some minerals thrown in. I mean, if you are eating dessert you are consciously making the choice to eat something that isn't 'food' in the sustenance sense; but you can still do it as wisely as possible. I even use whole wheat flour every time I bake something (which is rare these days) in the hopes that even though I'm indulging, I'm not completely abusing my body.

Not all 'alternatives' are equal, and not all are benign either. The thing to consider when experimenting with these where on the glycemic index they fall. What is the glycemic index? You can try this website (http://www.glycemicindex.com/); here's my description: basically, most foods have some effect on the body in terms of insulin release. The simpler the carbohydrate (or in our case, the sweetener), the faster the insulin response, the faster the body breaks it down and the higher you 'spike' in terms of reaction. Some people are exquisitely sensitive to the ensuing reaction (like me). How this fits into the sweetner scheme goes a little like this: white table sugar is at the top. It is stripped down of anything other than pure sucrose, and the body recognizes it as a raw instant energy. Insulin is released quickly, the body deals with the influx very very fast and the sugar is used up or stored away, depending on your body's needs.

So if white table sugar is at the top, something like Stevia is at the very bottom. Or, say, certain meats, or if you decided to eat clay. Honey and maple syrup are very nearly pure sucrose, and so are essentially the same as white sugar in terms of body response. Brown rice syrup falls below that, along with barley malt; and agave is lower still. I can feel the effect of agave, but not nearly as much.

Anyway, we got to talking about Agave. This is a clever sweetner, derived from the agave cactus. Lots of people are turning to agave instead of honey or maple syrup- especially those vegan folks- as an alternative to sugar. It is sweet, but not overly so; still, it would be a mistake to say "I don't eat sugar" and then go and consume a bottle full of agave. If you want to be a purist, that is. Yes, it is definitely lower on the index, no question (some bottles advertise this fact on the label).

What is the argument then? Well it goes something like this. If you are the sort that likes to wean slowly off sugar, I encourage you to explore alternatives. Give agave and brown rice syrup a try. They can be cumbersome to figure out if you are not accustomed to baking; they are wet sweetners and you need to account for that. Plus they have a flavor all their own, and it takes determination to change a palate preference. It can be done, however. Barley malt is even more powerful in terms of lending its own peculiar flavor; I liked using it with recipes that have a strong flavor already, to drown it out. Use them wisely is all I am saying, and be clear that you are still evoking an insulin response from your body- perhaps not as extreme, but it is there nonetheless. It worked for me; I doubt I could have kicked sugar instantly without knowing how to make 'alternative' stuff for myself. There are cookbooks out there that can help you if you are curious.

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