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Archive for February, 2010

what’s the deal with agave nectar

Why does eating have to be so complicated? Here we are at the top of the food chain and we’re confused about what to eat.

Why is that?

Well, first off – everyone has an opinion (from Alicia Silverstone to the Weston A. Price Foundation), nutrient research is confusing, the food industry is often out to make a profit regardless of the impact on our health, we’re all biochemically unique, government subsidies impact choices (why does a salad cost more than a double cheeseburger), advertising targets our weaknesses (sugar, fat and salt), we think we’re too busy to cook real food, we think real food is too expensive, we don’t know what real food is, we have too many “opt-out” choices (fast food on every corner), and the list goes on and on. We’re one of the richest and most resourceful countries in the world and yet we’re overweight, out of shape and generally unhealthy. Each piece of this food/health puzzle could be a PhD thesis.

Every so often I take one little puzzle piece and spout off about it. This time I decided to tackle agave nectar. Keep in mind that I’m not a doctor or your mom, so whatever I say is simply my opinion (refer above to PhD category #1).

What is agave nectar (also called syrup)?
Agave nectar is a sweetener made from the starch and inulin in the root of the agave plant. Maguey (also called the Century Plant) is the “official” name of the more than 200 species of agave plants commercially grown in Mexico. Contrary to what you might think, the plant is part of the lily family and not a cactus. The nectar is being promoted as a healthy, natural, allergen-free, low-glycemic alternative to refined sugar. Agave has a mild and pleasant taste and blends and dissolves easily when used for cooking or baking. It also seems to add lightness and texture to gluten-free baked goods.

Is agave a raw and natural sweetener?
What does raw or natural mean to the food industry? Not much, although both words sound good on paper (or on a product label). Agave is often advertised as a raw and natural sweetener, which gives the impression that it’s an unrefined, organic sweetener. Healthy, pure and unprocessed. Add in the word “nectar” and it sounds divinely healthy. Like some lovely goddess in a long flowing skirt went out into the desert and hand squeezed the organic juice right out of the plant and into the jar. But, according to food guru Marion Nestle, agave’s inulin content requires either heat or enzymes to convert it into a syrupy nectar. Inulin is an indigestible fiber found in the root of the plant. So, regardless of what the label says, it has to be processed in some way. Some of the research I found suggested that it was highly processed using heat and chemicals, in much the same way as HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). Another company claimed their agave product was not chemically processed and never heated above 118 degrees.

Overall, most of the information I found was misleading and confusing. Some claimed their products were low glycemic and a great sugar alternative for diabetics. Some promoted agave for vegans and those on a gluten-free diet. Other articles suggested agave was no better, and maybe even worse, than HFCS. All claimed that agave is sweeter than sugar so you can use less of it, thereby cutting calories. But on further study, I found that agave is higher in calories than sugar, so it’s often a wash depending on how much you use.

The Glycemic Research Institute in Washington DC made a decision last fall to halt a clinical trial of agave because the diabetic subjects were experiencing dangerous side effects related to the ingestion of a certain agave product. In fairness, although I have no idea what this actually means, the agave test food dosages were classified as “high.”

I published a detailed post in 2008 on sugar (check here) and listed all the different kinds of sweeteners. I included agave nectar and noted that I was reserving judgement on it because I didn’t know enough about it. I still don’t.

Is agave nectar similar to HFCS? What is fructose and is it unhealthy?
This could be another PhD thesis, but I’ll stick to the basics. According to my Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition textbook, “Fructose is a monosaccharide sometimes known as fruit sugar or levulose. Fructose is found abundantly in fruits, honey and saps.” Fructose is a simple carbohydrate. There are three monosaccharides that are important in nutrition – glucose, fructose and galactose. Fructose is the sweetest of the sugars. Disaccharides are pairs of monosaccharides linked together. Glucose (sometimes known as blood sugar) is the essential energy source for the body’s activities and occurs in every disaccharide. All sugar (white table sugar, HFCS, agave, honey) is made up of a combination of fructose and glucose. WebMD lists white table sugar with a 50/50 ratio of fructose to glucose. HFCS is listed with a 55 to 45 ratio, meaning it contains more fructose than glucose and therefore sweeter. The various sources I found listed agave nectar at anywhere from 60 to 90% fructose. Remember that agave contains inulin, which is made up of long chains of fructose molecules linked together.

Is that a bad thing?

Not in theory. In fact, inulin can be considered a good thing as it’s a fiber and also a prebiotic. It feeds our friendly bacteria. But here’s the catch. Fructose is okay when you get it from a whole food source and not extracted from the fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, phytonutrients and other goodies that come in the apple, carrot or beet. Studies have shown that commercially extracted fructose, concentrated into a high sugar sweetener (HFCS) can increase metabolic disorders leading to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases. HFCS is very sweet, highly refined, and made from white corn starch. The question is whether agave could contribute to those same problems because of its high fructose content.

Bottom line (in my opinion)? I’m going to stick with honey and maple syrup as my sweeteners of choice, but I’ll use them in moderation. I’ll keep you posted on the subject of agave when I run across further information.

By the way, Alicia Silverstone uses agave nectar in her Kind Diet Cookbook and The Weston A. Price Foundation published an article on agave, calling it the “worse than sugar” and “the latest health scam.” I have Alicia’s cookbook and I absolutely love it and I’m also a member of the WAPF.

So there.

Go forth and eat whole foods. You almost (yes, there’s always a catch) can’t go wrong.

You might also find the following posts interesting (and sweet).
Sugar, part 2 – HFCS commercials
Boo hoo! (high fructose candy corn syrup)
Liquid candy
Corny spoof on HFCS

transformational green tea smoothies

It’s a dazzling day here in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. The sun is shining, it’s crisp and clear (although a bit nippy at 14 degrees) and I’m ready to launch back into blog posting. I spent last week at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health and am renewed, refreshed and re-energized. I took a 5-day workshop on “Designing and Leading Transformational Workshops” from two brilliant, engaging and delightful teachers.

I’m transformed!

Into what, I’m not sure yet, but I’ve found another avenue for growth, learning and exploration. (Check here for information about Ken and Leslie and their truly enlightened workshops.)

I also found a new best friend and spiritual guide in Swami Pajamananda, mirthful darshan of delight. I’m inspired by the shared wisdom of our group and am ready to toss what I’ve learned out into the universe.

You might want to duck. Seriously.

But first, I’ll share with you one of my favorite early morning, attitude-transforming smoothies. By now you’ve probably heard that green tea borders on being a miracle elixir. I have a tendency to be skeptical about raving health claims or magic potions, but there’s a lot of convincing research available touting the medicinal benefits of this antioxidant beverage. I’ve taken notice and although I’m not much of a consistent tea drinker, I do make jars of green tea to occasionally use in smoothies.

Transformational green tea smoothie
what you need

4 Mejool dates, pitted
2 cups washed lettuce (the green leafy kind)
2 cups green tea (steeped and chilled)
1 ripe banana or pear
1 cup frozen cherries (organic, no sugar added)
1/2 cup peeled and diced cucumber
2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons chia seeds
1 teaspoon cinnamon

what you do
Soak pitted dates in the 2 cups green tea for about 15 – 20 minutes, or until soft and icky looking (they do look rather nasty looking). Place pumpkin seeds and chia seeds in a grinder (I use a coffee grinder specifically for grinding nuts and seeds) and pulse until well blended. Place all ingredients in a blender and blitz well. You may need to add more tea or some filtered water to gain the consistency you like. Adjust or substitute as needed. Sip and soak in all that antioxidant goodness. Makes 4 servings.

You might also like –
Watermelon chia seed smoothie
Napa cabbage and beet drippings smoothie
Hemp protein smoothie

Peace, love and transformational goodness!

the gf montana cookie diet

You’ve heard of the Hollywood Cookie Diet, right? I’m not kidding, it exists. The website has a vee-vee-la-voom blonde in a little white bikini, staring out over the ocean, flinging her hair back and forth. It’s one of those “this could be you” ads.

I’m not the beach-bunny, Hollywood type, so none of that appeals to me. I own an ice axe, a four-season tent, backcountry skis and an Alaskan Malamute that outweighs me. I don’t want to be her, although I do like flinging my hair around now and then.

I’m the Montana Cookie type. Hearty, gluten-free grains, fiber-filled oats, flannel-clad farmers, mountains, tractors and big skies. That’s much more to my liking than white bikinis, “diet” cookies, fake tans, or dogs that fit in purses.

Needless to say, the Hollywood Cookie Diet makes no sense to me. But tasty, gluten-free, monster cookies do. We’ll talk about that bothersome calorie thing later.

I love to experiment in the kitchen, I don’t follow rules well and I fancy myself as a chemist. No bikini necessary – I much prefer a lab coat or vintage apron. I’ve been playing with this hearty Timtana flour again. The independent and spirited stuff from Montana. It doesn’t always do what I want, but I like it, so I’m not giving up. I’m also smitten with gluten-free oats right now and mixing them with some Timtana flour eventually made for a perfect cookie blend. I’m also playing with eliminating xanthan gum and some of the starchy stuff, so my kitchen has been in full-blown test-baker mode lately.

My first try at Timtana oatmeal cookies was just so-so. Hearty and healthy? Yes. Sweet and tasty? Not so much. I wanted a nice mix of the two, not a horse biscuit. My second try was good, but I wasn’t quite satisfied. I didn’t use any starchy flours on that batch. My third try was okay, but not very sweet and not very “cookie” like. It was more like a power bar but the wrong shape. Power bars are next on my Timtana/oats test baking agenda. My fourth try was perfect, although there’s more sugar and a little starch – but no xanthan gum (that’s not easy to do with GF baking). See photo above, aren’t they gorgeous? Hearty (but light), nutritious, tasty, crispy around the edges and slightly-sweet. And they got better the longer I let them sit. Seriously, my test-tasters went nuts over these cookies.

Timtana gluten-free oatmeal garbanzo bean chocolate chip cookies (or something like that)
what you need

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill garbanzo/fava bean flour
1 & 1/2 cup gluten-free rolled oats *
1/2 cup Timtana flour
1/4 cup potato starch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup Earth Balance, softened
3/4 cup organic light brown sugar
1/2 cup organic sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons milk (I used brown rice milk)
1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup chocolate chips (optional)

what you do
Place dry ingredients (except oats) in a medium-sized bowl and whisk well to blend. Cream Earth Balance with sugars. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until creamy. Combine milk and apple cider vinegar in a small bowl and let sit for a few moments. Mix in the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients and add milk/vinegar mixture. Blend until well mixed. Stir in oats and chocolate chips. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled. Drop by spoonful onto a lightly greased cookie sheet or a silicon baking mat. Make sure cookies are a couple inches apart as they spread while in the oven. Bake in preheated 350 degree oven for about 7 or 8 minutes and rotate pan. Bake for another 7 or 8 minutes until golden brown. Cool on wire rack and enjoy!

* Certified gluten-free oats are safe for most people (most people, not everyone) with celiac disease or a gluten-sensitivity. Make sure your oats are certified gluten-free and are from a reputable supplier. Montana Gluten-Free Processors products are certified GF and Kosher.

Don’t you love knowing where your food comes from? Check here for the Montana gluten-free harvest pictured above. I like knowing the details. This field is where these cookies started their journey into my oven. Who knows where those Hollywood Diet Cookies came from. In fact, I don’t even recognize half the ingredients listed on the package label. What a difference!

Go forth and support your local farmers!
P.S. I almost forgot – that pesky calorie thing. Don’t overeat. Exercise every day. (Easier said than done, I know.)
P.P.S. I’m including this recipe in Nancy’s “Calling All Cookies” post over at The Sensitive Pantry. Check out her long and tasty list of cookie recipes. You’ll be drooling in no time.

Disclaimer: All material on this website is provided for informational and educational use only and should not be used for diagnostic purposes. Consult with your physician regarding any health or medical concerns you may have.
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