Do you have a sweet tooth? I do. In fact I have a whole set of them. I don’t really ever get excited by greasy fattening foods like burgers, fries or pizza, but if you put a brownie sundae or a candy bar in front of me, my pupils dilate and I get a look of hungry determination like Aretha Franklin when she storms into an all you can eat buffet. But recent research shows that sugar is the bad guy not only from a fat loss perspective, but also from a health and well being standpoint, so companies come out with artificial sweeteners doused with chemicals which promise to help us lose weight, and health "gurus" recommend natural alternatives like honey and agave nectar to sweeten up our foods and beverages. But what if I told you that these natural sweeteners, while better for your body than those little pink or yellow packets of chemicals you throw into your coffee and tea, were just as bad as sugar when it comes causing weight gain? Yes, that’s right. Honey and Agave Nectar, because of some clever marketing and advertising, may be the reason you are looking a little more pooh and a little less tigger this summer.
There was a turning point in the American diet in the 70’s and 80’s when a study came out with statistics that showed diets high in fat were a leading cause of heart and cardiovascular disease. This sent consumers into a panic and saw them running away from their meat and eggs and scrambling over each other to buy high carbohydrate foods such as white breads and other sugar laden products. It created the introduction of cheap food products such as high fructose corn syrup and trans fats. Thankfully we have come a little further since then and we now know that not all fats are bad, and in fact some fats such as Essential Fatty Acids are needed for proper bodily function and can even help us in our weight loss efforts. But unftunately we still encounter the aftermath of that craze, with our supermarket shelves stocked with processed food products, high in nasty and unhealthy refined carbohydrates, and left us for a taste of wanting more. More sugar that is…
Sugar is highly addictive. Period. It causes insulin spikes within our bodies and a consequence drop on blood sugar, creating a nasty cycle of eating and craving, causing you to feel tired at 3pm each afternoon and the reason you are scrumaging through your pockets desperately to find change to get that Kit Kat out of the vending machine as fast as possible…and one of the reasons I can be found asking the airline stewardess if she had any extra bags of chocolate chips cookies left on my flight home from New York the other day.
The good news is we are now slowly becoming more educated and moving away from sugar laden and refined process products and towards more natural, whole and organic foods. Just the types of food we were made to eat. So we are looking for sugar alternatives which are whole and natural, but wont cause us to cry when we stand on the scale each morning. Two of those products that have advertised and marketed as "natural" alternatives to sugar are honey and agave nectar. We have been told if we add it to our coffees and teas, and use them in our oatmeal each morning that they wont make us fat. Well, that’s a big fat lie. You see the varieties we buy in the grocery store are far from natural, have been processed and refined, and have the same disastrous effects on our waistlines as table sugar.
Agave Nectar is a sweetener which is derived from the sap of the Agave plant, which is a cacti looking product found predominately in Mexico and was originally used as the main ingredient in Tequila. It’s sales have more than tripled from 2003 – 2007 and can be found in many "healthy" items such as granola, health bars, and sweetened ready to drink teas. It is three times sweeter than sugar, meaning that manufacturing companies can use less of it, and has around 16 calories per teaspoon.
We believe it is healthier for us because we think it unprocessed, but in fact it is. It is heated to varying degrees depending on which product you choose, which results in a processed, refined product that is far from it’s original state, and this determined the level of fructose in the nectar. As with other high fructose process sweeteners, such as High Fructose Corn Syrup, Agave Nectar can raise your blood sugar levels very quickly, leading to an insulin spike which equals fat storage. Research also show that processed concentrated forms of fructose like this, as opposed to the fructose found naturally in fruits, bypasses certain internal mechanisms and deposits more readily as fat and cholesterol.
Honey has been around forever, and you can buy various versions of it in the grocery store these days, including highly processed and refined honey, to organic and raw honey. Either way, if you are using it thinking it wont make you fat, you are wrong. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a honey hater and there has been some research that indicates that unprocessed honey may have some health benefits, but the majority of honey we are buying at the grocery store, and even health stores, are the refined type. All honey contains sugar which raises blood sugar and if you are not wary of your portion sizes, can cause you to gain weight, just like sugar. It is sweeter than sugar and contains around 22 calories per teaspoon, making it more calorie dense that sugar which contains 16 calories.
So what are healthy individuals with a sweet tooth like me to do to liven up our coffees and breakfast cereals? Stevia. Stevia powder is a new product that has recently hit the western world, but has been used in South America by the Guarani Indians for centuries to sweeten their foods. It is derived from the Stevia Rebuadiana plant and is 30 times sweeter than sugar. It is virtually calorie free and doesn’t seem to have any effect of blood sugar, so it is a great alternative to sugar and those nasty artificial chemical sweeteners. But buyer beware, just because a product says it contains Stevia, doesn’t make it the only ingredient. Companies are catching onto the popularity of stevia, and creating "stevia blends" where they mix stevia with sugar or artificial ingredients. These are what is mostly found in grocery store bought varieties. Look for products thats are 100% stevia powder or extract and can be found at most health food stores or Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
At the end of the day, a sugar is a sugar. Whether you are putting sugar in your coffee, honey in your tea, or agave nectar in your baked goods, they all contain sugar and have an effect on your blood sugar and your body’s tendency to store fat. Unless it is in a whole unprocessed state, like fruit for example, then it is best to avoid consuming it in large quantities, irrespective of the marketing claims. Also, just because a product is marketed a unprocessed and natural doesn’t mean it is, so be wary and do some research before you buy. Otherwise while your food might be tasting very sweet, the aftertaste of fat and regret will