With most foods and drinks, the sweeter it is, the higher in carbs. That's why it's important to understand the ins and outs of naturally occurring sugars, added sugars, and artifcial sweeteners. Naturally occurring sugars exist in fruits and vegetables, and all dairy products. (You've heard of lactose? It's a sugar!) Added sugars include table sugar, cane sugar, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, molasses, etc. And last, there are artificial sweeteners, which are either low in calories and carbs or calorie- and carb-free. These include aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose — the colored packets you see on the counters of coffee shops. If you know a little bit about all the different ways foods and drinks are sweetened, you will have a head start on making smart decisions about what fits into your healthy eating plan and what doesn't.
Agave is a healthy sweetener.
More false than true. The major health benefit is that you may use less agave than sugar to get the same sweetness. But that's about where the health-buck stops. People who've heard all the bad press about high-fructose corn syrup — and avoid it like the plague — need to realize that agave nectar is a high-fructose syrup (at least 75% fructose). Many health experts believe high-fructose foods are not good for you. "Perhaps most worrisome is that excessive fructose may increase the risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes," says Richard Johnson, MD, author of The Sugar Fix: The High-Fructose Fallout That is Making You Fat and Sick (2008). It also triggers a combination of unhealthy effects that can eventually lead to a host of troubles, including heart disease and stroke, according to Johnson and others.
Bottom line: If you've got a serious sweet tooth, a little agave syrup now and then may help you control calories and blood sugar spikes. But that's as far as it goes — and the trade-offs aren't great. Sorry about that.
Agave is all natural.
True, sort of. But "all natural" doesn't mean "not processed." Agave comes from the desert-dwelling succulent Agave tequilana, which is also the source of tequila. However, turning the plant's juicy sap into a syrupy nectar you can drizzle on yogurt or stir into tea takes some doing. Some manufacturers heat the sap; others use enzymes to convert it into table-ready syrup.
Is it better to use agave syrup sweetener rather than sugar in my coffee?
— Eva, via e-mail
A: Agave is a pretty sweet deal. Because it's four times sweeter than sugar, you need far less of it. Just 1/4 teaspoon (4 calories) will taste like 1 teaspoon of sugar (16 calories) in coffee or tea. Agave's sweetness comes from fructose, which your body sends to your liver for extra processing before shipping it to your bloodstream. Glucose goes straight to your bloodstream and va-va-voom! Up zooms your blood sugar. Still, agave is a refined sweetener (you didn't think they just squeezed it out of agave cactus, did you?) and fructose may increase your risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes. So, as with all sugar, go easy.
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