Agave syrup debate: health benefits and downsides
In the nineties, fat was the ultimate enemy. In the 21st however, sugar and all its various substitutes have toppled fat from its position becoming the culinary world’s most wanted criminal. Studies have proven that artificial sweeteners are some of the worst chemicals you can put in your body and the traditional white sugar most of us grew up with isn’t much better. Immune suppression, insulin spikes, strokes and cancer are just a few of the serious health issues linked to its consumption.
If you are like many people in Vancouver for whom health is a major priority, you may find yourself empty handed when it comes to the occasional indulgence. Is it possible to find a product that satisfies sweet cravings, while staying compliant to the --let’s face it -- stringent demands of most Lower Mainland health enthusiasts?
Local entrepreneur Shahab Samimi says it is. Along with his partner Themis Velgis, Samimi has been introducing Vancouver to a new, supposedly healthier way to satisfy sweet cravings. Together, they are working toward making agave syrup the hippest, most popular sugar replacement around.
Agave Tequilana, or Blue Agave, is a striking, spiky cactus that is grown primarily in Mexico and South Africa. As its name suggests, the plant has been used for tequila production for centuries due to the high carbohydrate/fructose composition of the ‘syrup’ found in its spikes and heart.
What many North Americans aren’t aware of however, is the syrup in its unfermented state can be used as a replacement for traditional table sugar. The calorie count per teaspoon is the same and the sweetness factor is almost identical.
The key difference and one that is causing the most stir in health circles is agave’s impact on blood sugar. Whereas white sugar has a glucose index score of 60, agave syrup comes in at a meager 10-19, depending on how processed it is. Anyone looking to control their blood sugar levels throughout the day now has an option beyond those acrid, unfortunate artificial sweeteners when they’re hit by cravings.
Sounds like the second coming of sugar, doesn’t it?
Sounds like the rampant vegans among us are going to have their literal cake and eat it too. However, a quick search on agave reveals enough controversy to significantly dull the joy. Dr. Mercola has referred to agave’s popularity as “a triumph of marketing over truth.”
He believes that consumers were so eager to believe they had stumbled across a healthy sugar substitute that they too quickly dismissed what can be considered to be agave’s darker side. Mercola and many other naturopaths are of the opinion that agave is as far from being a ‘whole’ food as possible. In order to make the syrup palatable, the agave plant has to go through over five different complex stages.
As it is processed, sometimes at high temperatures, the composition changes and the agave syrup becomes a whopping 90 per cent fructose. Isn’t fructose one of the good sugars? Don’t we ingest in everyday in a fresh orange or apple, for example? Unfortunately not. Studies have shown that the high concentration of fructose such as that found in agave taken in large quantities over time can have serious health implications.
According to Mercola, regular consumption of high fructose sugars can actually break down collagen in the body, cause anemia, high cholesterol and at its most extreme, damage the liver like a few stiff drinks.
This information isn’t stopping Vancouver consumers from lapping it up, however. Sales of agave sweeteners have increased 46 per cent in the last year as more and more consumers are creating a demand for wellness-based products. Samimi, an economics undergrad at SFU and Velgis, a renowned Vancouver pastry chef, had already been in the process of developing healthy alternatives when they realized agave had the potential to make a huge impact on the market.
“(We) basically saw an opportunity…made a few phone calls and we flew down to Mexico,” explains Samimi, "I met with the farmers and it all kind of started from there.” Knowing their market, the partners ensured that their factories were up to fair trade standards and their sources environmentally sound.
If they were going to bring agave back to Vancouver, it would have to satisfy our seemingly endless obsession with organic, ‘raw’ and ethically superior products. In order to do this, they have assured that their brand, Pura Agave, goes through as little processing as possible in order to keep the naturally occurring enzymes and prebiotics intact.
This lack of processing creates a syrup that is light in both colour and flavour, with its taste comparable for many to a gentler, less cloying honey. It mixes incredibly well in both hot and cold drinks and adds a subtle sweetness to baked goods, pies or puddings. In essence, Samimi and Velgis are marketing their product as the ideal sweetener alternative to be used anywhere sugar is used with less of an impact on the body.
But is it actually a healthier choice?
With Mercola and many others saying no, but the Pura folks and those on their camp saying yes, it seems to be rather like a war of faith between the two sides.
Samimi believes that those who are against agave’s use are “misinformed because they’re comparing the fructose (in agave) to high fructose corn syrup. It’s from corn! It’s really poison what you’re consuming whereas agave’s fructose is naturally occurring.”
From the looks of it, It appears the majority of Vancouverites are more willing to accept Samimi’s theory. Pura was launched as the official sweetener of Blenz Hibiscus Tea this summer, with great success.
The coffee chain will also be moving towards using Pura’s flavoured syrups (100 per cent organic, of course) in their coffees in the coming months as they work toward gradually phasing out the artificial syrups favoured by most cafes. In the battle between the two camps, Pura’s customers seem to be satisfied in having faith that agave is the better choice and are happily indulging their sweet tooth while spending their hard earned dollars.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Pura’s goal to create healthy indulgences. Obviously, there is a market for it in this city. As previously mentioned, who you choose to believe in terms of agave’s health benefits has a lot to do with what you want to believe in. Some consumers have so deeply entrenched themselves in achieving maximum health and making ‘the right’ choices that they will no doubt abandon hope when it comes to agave.
Others may be simply happy to discover a sweetener that mixes well into their margaritas without having to go through the whole tiresome sugar syrup process. It may well be the ‘lesser of two evils’ philosophy working in Pura’s favour – it’s not table sugar and it’s not a chemical sweetener so…well, it’ll do.
Although the article states that Agave syrup has the same calorie count per teaspoon and roughly the same sweetness level, readers may be interested to know that there is a slight difference. According to research at the University of Missouri, a teaspoon of Agave syrup has 16 calories, making it 1 calorie richer than a teaspoon of white sugar. Pura states that agave is 25% sweeter than sugar but some sources claim it is as high as 40.
Samimi, co-founder of Pura would also like to ensure that readers are aware that Dr.Mercola’s study of the negative effects of fructose in Agave was conducted using 200grams of fructose a day. This is far higher than what a normal person might consume.