Friday, September 10, 2010

Agave vs. Stevia

Captain's Log, Stardate 07.19.2010

Update 9/10/10: I did a little more research and added it to the end of the blog post.

I had a discussion with Captain Caffeine okay, okay, I admit it was primarily me ranting at Captain Caffeine about an article I’d read recently about how aspartame (Nutrasweet) is bad for you because it breaks down into formaldehyde and methanol in your body.

Yes, you read that right. And no, formaldehyde does NOT keep you young, it is primarily to keep DEAD cells from breaking down in DEAD animals (Captain Caffeine insists formaldehyde will preserve his cells or at the very least help him in a zombie attack).

The article then went on to rant about how honey and agave were terrible sweeteners, and yet the article writer highly recommended Stevia.

Now, I had heard that Stevia, while it comes from a plant, undergoes processing, while agave nectar is relatively unprocessed. But I did not know for sure, so I went online to find out.

Granted, who knows if what you find online is 100% true, but here’s what I found out:

Agave is from the (primarily) Blue Agave plant which looks like a massively spiny pineapple. After 7-10 years, they hack off the spines and take the pineapple part (called the pina). They press out the sap, filter it, and then heat it at a low temperature until the carbohydrates break down into sugars (fructose and glucose). Some nectars are darker and have a stronger flavor than others, depending on how long it’s heated and how thoroughly it’s filtered.

Stevia is a compound processed from the Stevia plant. There are two glycosides in the Stevia leaves, stevioside and rebaudioside, which are 250-300 times sweeter than sugar.

Here’s where I was shocked. (So, um, prepare to be shocked.) To get the glycoside compound Rebaudioside A from the plant, the leaves are dried and undergo a water extraction. Then it has to be refined using ethanol, methanol (yes, you read that right, methanol, the stuff that makes you blind), crystallization and separation (flashback to chem. lab) to get the pure Rebaudioside A.

There is a Canadian patent that extracts the compounds via column extraction and nanofiltration purification. When I did biology work, I used a column to extract compounds. Would I drink anything that came out of a column? Um… no. Columns are full of chemicals to do its job, which is to extract specific compounds. But do I trust there not to be trace residue? No. You can do what you want, but that’s my stance.

So here’s where I was mad. Why would a journalist recommend Stevia, which undergoes extensive chemical processing, over agave nectar, which undergoes so little processing that raw food enthusiasts consider it a raw food?

I have forbidden Captain Caffeine to eat any more Stevia. He rolled his eyes because hello, practically everything we eat has some sort of artificial sweetener or artificial something.

But I have decided to stick to honey and agave. I have probably already poisoned my body with compounds and chemicals for most of my life, but maybe I can now add a few years back by avoiding things that turn into formaldehyde in my liver or that is processed with methanol.

Update 9/10/10: Okay, I've done more research on the web (which again, who knows how accurate it is, but here goes).

I tried to pay more attention to articles that actually cited published research studies as opposed to articles that just spouted information without citing references (it's a throwback to my biology days--we only ever looked at articles that cited published journal references).

Downside: There are a lot of agave manufacturers who do extensive processing to agave. From what I read, it sounds like the processing may make it sweeter--it creates a higher fructose content.

Artificially-created free fructose (as opposed to natural fructose in fruit) isn't good for your body in high doses, although an article cites a study where moderate amounts of different sweeteners (including High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and agave) don't show a difference between them all.

However, most studies test high intakes of high fructose sweeteners, in which case it's bad for you. (But we know that any large amount of something is bad, right?) Studies have cited an "acceptable" amount of daily fructose intake, but the reality is that most people intake higher amounts of high fructose sweeteners than is good for them regardless of what it is, whether HFCS or agave.

Even some rather passionate articles I read touting the evils of agave admit that the biggest problem is each person's intake of such high amounts of fructose, regardless of where it's coming from, whether HFCS, agave, table sugar, or honey.

Some agave producers, however, use low temperatures for processing, producing a lower fructose content in the final product. Also, the fructose in those products are apparently still bonded to other sugars and not free fructose, like it is in HFCS. This is a good thing, because the body processes the fructose more like it does a fiber or the fructose in fruit.

Here are a couple articles I thought seemed more trustworthy because of the studies cited as references. Then again, take it all with a grain of salt because hello, this is the internet:

http://www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/is-agave-nectar-safe/
http://www.timeforwellness.org/blog-view/is-agave-syrup-really-a-health-food-142
There is a Mercola article a lot of people link to, but it doesn't cite any references. I read it and even though he talks about how bad agave is for you, he also admits that the biggest problem is not necessarily the type of sweetener but the amounts people intake of sweeteners, period.

Bottom line: agave is a sweetener, just like sugar and honey and HFCS and even stevia. Don't go hog wild and drink gallons of the stuff. If you can find organic agave minimally processed at low temps, you're in better shape.

My take: I'll stick with minimally-processed agave and local unfiltered honey, and WordVixen mentioned you can grow stevia plants, too, which I'm curious to try. Sugar and crystalized stevia are too processed for my taste.

14 comments :

  1. I have recently gone through almost the exact same struggle. I've been using agave nectar for over a year, and my dad kept trying to convert me to stevia because of the lower calories. Well, I hate the taste of stevia, but I was trying to make myself get used to it, and then I read that it is no better than any other artificial sweetener in terms of the effect it has on your body. So I am now back to honey and agave exclusively also. I just use them for my tea, so I figure two or three teaspoons a day is not unreasonable!

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  2. Yuck!

    I am nearly diabetic... I try to avoid everything sweet, but it makes for a sad little life.

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  3. OK, here's the thing. I believe not all stevia is processed in that manner; the first stevia I ever had was green, didn't dissolve well, and certainly wasn't crystalline. Any chance this is what the article was touting?

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  4. Well, this is disappointing because I do use Stevia and thought it was a good alternative. Although it doesn't taste good in everything.
    I also recently read that you have to be selective in your agave choices as some of them are no better than high fructose corn syrup. I still use it. I use a brand that claims to process it the right way.
    I love honey, but it doesn't work well in cold drinks.
    How does one know what to do?

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  5. I don't use any artificial sweeteners. I can't stand the aftertaste and they make my stomach sour. Give me real sugar please!

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  6. Linda, I agree with you, 2-3 teaspoons of honey or raw sugar isn't going to break your diet budget!

    Word Lily--I didn't realize that! All the Stevia I've seen is crystalline and looks like processed sugar. How would you get a less processed Stevia? Can you order it online?

    Kay--I didn't know that about agave. I'll have to be careful. I use the agave from Trader Joe's right now. Is that one of the better brands?

    Rachel--to be honest, when I first started drinking diet sodas, I really couldn't taste much of a difference. My palate has changed since then, but I still don't really violently object to the taste of artificial sweeteners. However, I object on health grounds, even if I can't taste the difference!

    Camy

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  7. Bethany--I'm sorry about that! My friend is diabetic and it's really hard for her because she loves sweets.

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  8. When I first bought stevia (this was nearly 10 years ago now, way before stevia was available in supermarkets) it was at the local natural foods co-op. when I searched for stevia powder, some of the results seemed like what I meant but others didn't; the one I'm talking about is just the leaves, ground up. Not extracted.

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  9. I think the ground up leaves would be great as a sweetener! I just don't want to used the processed stuff.
    Camy

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  10. Camy, I use Madhave Agave. I don't know anything about the Trader Joe's.

    I also found this online re: stevia:
    A liquid extract can be made from the whole Stevia leaves or from the green herbal Stevia powder. Simply combine a measured portion of Stevia leaves or herbal powder with pure USP grain alcohol (Brand, or Scotch will also do) and let the mixture sit for 24 hours. Filter the liquid from the leaves or powder residue and dilute to taste using pure water. Note that the alcohol content can be reduced by very slowly heating (not boiling) the extract and allowing the alcohol to evaporate off. A pure water extract can be similarly prepared, but will not extract quite as much of the sweet glycosides as will the alcohol. Either liquid extract can be cooked down and concentrated into a syrup.

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  11. Thanks, Kay! That sounds a lot better than the processed powder.
    Camy

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  12. Camy- You can actually buy stevia plants to keep in your garden and use the fresh leaves for sweetening. A friend of mine used to buy the dried leaves (they were crumbled, sort of like rubbed or crumbled sage) and keep them in a pill bottle in her purse. :-) I used to buy the stevia extract or liquid stevia (extract has a strong licorice taste to it). I wouldn't touch the crystalized stevia.

    And like Kay said, the agave nectar depends on the source. Almost all commercial agave nectar is actually from the starchy root of the plant and contains MORE fructose than high fructose corn syrup. While honey is also high in fructose, the fructose in honey is actually bonded with other sugars, and so it gets processed in your body with the other sugars. The fructose in high fructose corn syrup is not bonded, and so the fructose gets processed in the liver, immediately turned into triglycerides and over consumption can cause 8 of 10 major alcohol related diseases. I'm not sure if the fructose in agave is bonded or not...

    I've been following "real food" blogs for a while now, and most of them recommend raw honey, grade b maple syrup, or the more raw forms of cane sugar for sweetening. I've even made terrific chocolates from just unsweetened cocoa powder, virgin coconut oil, vanilla extract, and maple syrup or raw honey. They melt quickly though, so I store them in the freezer. :-)

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  13. I'm totally going to try to find a stevia plant!!!!!! Thanks!

    I'd be curious to find out if the fructose in agave is bonded or not. There has to be a way to find out, right? I'm also hoping that if the agave is minimally processed, it's not as bad for you as HFCS, which I heard is very highly processed. I'll look it up to see if that's true ...

    Camy

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  14. Hey guys,
    So based on your comments, I did more research on this and specifically looked at different processing methods for agave and also if the fructose is bonded or not. I posted the updated stuff above. Thanks so much for pointing me in this direction! I feel much more informed now.
    Camy

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