January 28, 2011 cburnham

You Asked: Natural Sweeteners and Health Food Fake

This is a question a few athletes have asked me recently and I thought it would be good to answer on the site.  You got a question?  Let me know and I will try to answer it on here in the future.

Q: If trying to remove refined sugars from your diet, what do you recommend to use as a sweetener in baking and cooking?

A: There are a lot of health benefits to reducing refined, simple sugars out of your diet. From an athlete’s perspective, lots of simple sugars are not a good idea because they cause big swings in blood sugar and energy levels, are devoid of nutrients, will rot your teeth (as Mom would say), and will reduce your bodies ability to burn fats (for more on this I would recommend reading Bob Seebohar’s book Metabolic Efficieny). OK, so you get the idea, plain old white sugar is the equivalent of the evil Emperor in Return of the Jedi. So once we toss the Emperor down the reactor shaft of the Death Star, what do we replace him with?

When it comes to most food items I like to think in terms of what is less refined (i.e. closer to its natural form), traditional (something my Grandmother would recognize), and what has the most nutrients. My go to sweeteners for most things are raw honey (preferably local to help reduce some allergy symptoms), Grade B Maple Syrup (grade b is less refined and contains more nutrients), sucanant, or rapadura (the latter two are basically the same dry, less refined versions of cane sugar made from dehydrating cane sugar juice). What is missing from that list is Agave Nectar and there is a good reason why!

Agave Nectar, the biggest Health Industry fraud EVER!!

OK, maybe I am exaggerating (not really) but Raw Agave Nectar is not natural, raw, or any where near healthy. Agave nectar, or juice, is not made from the sap of the plant. It is made from the starch of the giant pineapple-like, root bulb and is subjected to a complex chemical and genetically engineered enzymatic process that is very similar to the process in which High Fructose Corn Syrup is made (source). It is important to note that agave nectar’s fructose content is considerably higher (70% on up depending on the brand) compared to HFCS (~55%). Why is that important? Fructose in high concentrations (not seen normally in nature) can cause fat gain and decrease insulin sensitivity (source).  Agave nectar is just a lot of good marketing. Don’t buy it!

Comments (3)

  1. Valerie

    Thanks for the info. on the sweeteners. How does brown rice syrup rate? It’s “supposed” to be a slow release low glycemic “natural” sugar. It is in a lot of the Clif bars and gels.

    • Brown rice syrup is made by culturing (exposing it to enzymes) to predigest the starch and make it sweet. While it is a processed food it isn’t as processed as HFCS. The exact percentages can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but it is typically around 45% maltose, 3% glucose, and 52% maltotroise. Maltose is extremely high on the glycemic index scale and actually above glucose. Maltotroise is a complex carbohydrate so it does help to balance out the maltose, but the exact quantity of maltose can be up to 70% taking brown rice syrup from relatively slow acting metabolically to something that will elevate blood sugar levels and the insulin response relatively quickly. The problem is that there is no way to know what the exact percentage of maltose is in any given brown rice syrup which is the main reason we tend to avoid it. There are just better natural choices.
      Given all that, I don’t have a problem with the clif bar products since they are a special use food (I don’t recommend snacking on energy bars!) and they do use predominantly organic ingredients. If I was making energy bars at home though I would probably be using honey than brown rice syrup.

  2. Jess

    Thanks for the detail on Agave, I didn’t know.

    It’s been really hard to eliminate sugar, I researched the calorie free things like Splenda and read some interesting research on HFCS, but hadn’t thought to check out Agave because I don’t use it. I know a lot of people who do and they believe it’s a better choice.

    I’ve pretty much settled on honey for most things although I do like molasses for pancakes. Lot of people find molasses to different but I grew up with it and here in the south you can still find the “blackstrap” variety (non-sulfured). Blackstrap molasses is a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron; one tablespoon provides up to 20% of the daily value of each of those nutrients.

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