Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Our Sweet Society

This week's blog post comes as a request from a patient and blog reader.  Her specific question is regarding Agave as a natural replacement for sugar.  Before I get to Agave in particular, I feel like I need to lay out a little ground work on sugar in general.
I think that we could all agree that most Americans eat WAY too much sugar. It's one of the many reasons that rates of Type 2 Diabetes and other conditions such as Syndrome X and other auto-immune diseases are on an exponential rise.  However, most people don't realize how much sugar we are actually consuming.

What you need to realize is that I'm not just talking about sugar from candy bars, suckers, and Froot Loops.  There's hidden sugar all around us.  Most bread and grain products are chock full or sugar in the form of added sugar and the carbohydrates that are broken down into sugar in your digestive tract.  Not to mention other foods that have added sugar and processed carbohydrates to make them taste "better".

The other thing about sugar is that not all sugars are created equal.  Most sugar in food and candy these days is in the form of Fructose.  Now fructose is different than table sugar (sucrose) and very different than the sugar that our bodies require for basic cellular function (glucose).  The increase in consumption of fructose, I believe, can be directly linked to the rise in diabetes, obesity, etc. 

When fructose is digested in high quantities, your liver is actually doing a lot of the work.  When your body breaks down fructose, it needs to treat it kind of like alcohol, which is why it gets broken down in the liver.  Also, excess fructose gets easily converted to fat, which tends to accumulate in the gut (if you are a male or a apple shaped female) or in the butt and thighs (if you're a pear shaped female).  And we all know that an increase in bodily fat is NOT a good thing.
So what about Agave?

Sad to say, agave isn't that great of a substitute.  Yes, it comes from a plant (just like High Fructose Corn Syrup).  But, just like HFCS, it needs to be processed.  And, unless you're being very careful about the source of your agave syrup, there are almost as many harmful chemicals used to extract the syrup from the agave plant.  (For a refresher on HFCS click here.)

One last comment on agave.  When you buy agave syrup, you're actually getting a much higher dose of fructose than necessary.  In fact, you're getting more fructose than high fructose corn syrup!

So what's a better substitute?  Something natural like raw honey (which doesn't require chemical prcessing) could be a good substitute, however, honey is quite high in fructose so you will need to use moderation.  Also, an organic sweetener like stevia can work wonders.

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