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    Archive for the ‘agave nectar’ Category

    Quick & Healthy Recipe: Oil-Free Autumn Buckwheat Granola

    Buckwheat is technically a seed (and, despite its name, wheat & gluten-free)

    I love this granola for several reasons; it offers something different by not being oat-based, it doesn’t contain any added oils (gets all its healthful fats from whole foods), it’s a delectable combination of crunchy and chewy, and it captures all the flavors of autumn.  Enjoy!

    Continue Reading »


    You Ask, I Answer: Agave Is The New Enemy?

    Before reading my response below, I recommend you read his article first.

    One more thing before we get started.  Look back at previous posts on this blog and you will see I am by no means an agave enthusiast.

    From the inception of Small Bites, I have always said that, in my world, “sugar is sugar is sugar”.  All sweeteners offer 4 grams of sugar (16 calories) per teaspoon.  The best thing you can do is limit all added sugars — whether it’s white sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, or agave.

    That said, I don’t see the need to demonize agave, which brings us to this post.

    Dr. Mercola’s statements are in red.  My responses are in black.

    “We have an epidemic of obesity in the US and it wasn’t until recently that my eyes opened up to the primary cause – – fructose.”

    Here we have one of the most basic (yet very prevalent) erroneous statements about obesity rates — that a certain component in food “causes” obesity.

    Rising obesity rates are clearly linked to increases in caloric consumption.  Technically — though very misleadingly — one could argue that carbohydrates are behind rising obesity rates in the sense that some of the additional calories consumed over the past thirty years come from carbohydrates.

    Protein intake has also increased in the past forty years, so one could also technically claim protein is behind rising obesity rates.  Of course, those sorts of statements are ultimately untrue and distract from any sort of serious conversation on the matter.

    The issue with sweeteners — ALL of them — is that they provide empty calories.  Empty calories do not satiate.  That is why we can easily drink 600 calories of soda (whether it is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, or agave nectar) and still feel hungry.  Eat 600 calories of a whole food that offers fat, protein, and fiber and I guarantee you will be full for hours.

    “Depending on the source and processing method used, agave syrup can, therefore, contain as little as 55% fructose, the same amount found in high-fructose corn syrup — in which case the syrup would offer no advantage.”

    Except that no one who consumes agave seeks it out because of lower fructose levels. Some reasons why individuals prefer agave over high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) include:

    • Avoidance of genetically modified organisms
    • Flavor/texture preferences
    • Veganism (the filtration of white table sugar often utilizes bone char from animals, thereby making it unsuitable for vegans)
    • Practical use (you can purchase agave nectar and bake with it, add it to beverages, or pour some over yogurt)

    “Most commercially available agave is converted into fructose-rich syrup using genetically modified enzymes and a chemically intensive process involving caustic acids, clarifiers, and filtration chemicals.”

    Okay, and most yogurts contain excessive amounts of sugar.  That doesn’t mean all yogurt should be avoided.  Similarly, a lot of salmon is farmed and offer less omega-3s than wild salmon.  The key isn’t to completely shun salmon, but to know which types to pick.  That said, though, the processing of agave only requires one step.

    As Marion Nestle explained on her Food Politics blog earlier this year, “agave contains inulin, a polymer of fructose, which must be hydrolyzed (broken down by heat or enzymes) to fructose to make the sweetener.  It’s a processed sweetener requiring one hydrolysis step, requiring more processing than honey and less than high fructose corn syrup.”

    Raw agave nectar achieves this process through enzymes, while other varieties utilize heat.  I don’t know where the “caustic acid” notion comes from.

    “While agave syrup does have a low-glycemic index, so does antifreeze — that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”

    A pretty terrible comparison.  I am not a fan of labeling foods as “good” or “bad” based solely on their glycemic index.  After all, ice cream has a ‘better’ score than watermelon.

    “There are also concerns that some distributors are cutting agave syrup with corn syrup — how often and to what extent is anyone’s guess.”

    Concerns that have never been substantiated, to the best of my knowledge.  Again, they key is to look for reputable sources.  Look for the USDA Organic seal on bottles of agave nectar, and make sure the ingredient list only lists agave nectar.

    “Agave is known to contain large amounts of saponins. Saponins are toxic steroid derivatives, capable of disrupting red blood cells and producing diarrhea and vomiting. There is also a possible link between saponins and miscarriage by stimulating blood flow to the uterus, so if you’re pregnant, you should definitely avoid agave products.”

    Saponins are found in a variety of foods, mainly legumes and beans.  They actually have health-promoting effects, including the lowering of LDL cholesterol.  When consumed in extremely high amounts, they can cause gastrointestinal distress.  Look at the data, though. and the amount of saponins needed to experience those symptoms is ridiculously high.  Dr. Mercola’s hyperbolic statements would be akin to a warning not to drink wine because it contains alcohol, which is capable of causing alcoholic poisoning.

    “Fructose only becomes a metabolic poison when you consume it in quantities greater than 25 grams a day. If you consume one of the typical agave preparations, that is one tablespoon.”

    I don’t know where the “25 grams a day” figure comes from.  It is not referenced and I certainly have not seen it in any reputable journal or publication.  What is most ridiculous about this quote is that it literally doesn’t add up.

    One tablespoon of agave nectar contains 12 grams of sugar.

    Let’s assume we are talking about one of these “super high in fructose varieties”.  Fine, if ninety percent of that sugar is fructose, that leaves us with 10.8 grams of fructose.

    How Dr. Mercola concludes that a tablespoon (12 grams) of agave equal 25 grams of fructose beats me — and scientific reasoning.

    For the record, a medium mango contains more than 25 grams of fructose, so does a medium pear and half a mango.  Would you consider that “metabolically poisonous”?

    As for pesticide claims: if this is a concern for you, look for certified-organic agave.

    Is agave addictive?  I have yet to see any evidence of that.  The very preliminary — and very controversial — research on sugar addiction only places the spotlight on sucrose, not fructose.

    As I have stated before, I never considered agave a “wonder” food.  I never advocated liberal consumption, nor did I classify it as “healthy”.  While I take issue with anyone who classifies agave as a health-promoting “super food”, I also will not stand for absurd demonizations of it.

    As one distributor or raw, organic agave put it, “[Agave] is not going to solve world peace, cure cancer or do your laundry, but it will provide a delicious alternative to highly refined sweeteners, poor tasting nutritive sweeteners, and high glycemic natural sweeteners.”

    One last point — what is it about the word “doctor” that inspires blind trust in so many?  For years now, I have heard people parrot absurd nutrition “facts” with the assumption that said information must be true because “a doctor” said it.

    Don’t get me wrong.  There are many intelligent, well-informed doctors with extensive nutrition knowledge.  There are also those who, for whatever reason, believe that having ‘MD’ after their name automatically makes them THE authority on every topic under the umbrella of health.

    The word “doctor” before someone’s name simply means they were granted an MD or PHD.  It tells us absolutely nothing about someone’s character, motivations, or extent of knowledge.

    So, no, Edrie, please do not forward that inflammatory article to your girlfriend.  Allow her to enjoy a small amount of agave nectar in her coffee.


    Quick & Healthy Recipe: Spicy & Decadent Satay Marinade

    peanut-sauce-lrgThis delicious Thai-inspired marinade is extremely easy to make and imparts wonderful flavors.

    Although traditionally paired with chicken, I have only had this marinade with tofu and tempeh, where it works wonderfully!

    Don’t let the long ingredient list dissuade you — preparation is super quick.

    YIELDS: 1 cup (4 servings)


    2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
    1 Tablespoon soy sauce or tamari
    1/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons nut butter (peanut, almond, or cashew; natural and unsalted recommended)
    2 Tablespoons canned coconut milk
    2 medium garlic cloves
    1 Tablespoon dried ginger
    2 Tablespoons cilantro, chopped
    2 teaspoons Thai chili peppers, chopped
    1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
    1/4 cup basil leaves
    2 teaspoons chili powder OR cayenne pepper
    1/4 teaspoon cumin
    2 teaspoons honey or agave nectar
    2 Tablespoons lime juice
    1 Tablespoon toasted sesame oil
    5 teaspoons water


    Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and process until evenly combined.

    To get optimal flavors, marinade food for at least 4 hours, covered, in refrigerator.

    NUTRITION INFORMATION (per serving):

    198 calories
    5 grams saturated fat (see note, below)
    300 milligrams sodium
    2 grams added sugar

    Excellent Source of: Manganese, monounsaturated fat, niacin

    Good Source of: Magnesium, vitamin B6, vitamin E

    NOTE: The saturated fats in this recipe come exclusively from the nut butter and coconut milk. Coconuts’ saturated fat is less atherogenic than that of full-fat dairy. Additionally, if using peanut or almond butter, their saturated fats are packaged along with extremely heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.


    This Is America’s “Health Guru”?

    DrOz-OprahEven if you’ve never seen an episode of Oprah, you know who Dr. Oz is.

    His daily television show debuted in September and, apparently, many magazine editors and television producers are under the assumption he is the only person who can answer any health question.

    Although Dr. Oz is certainly one of the most skilled and knowledgeable cardio-thoracic surgeons in the country, he is perceived to be — and markets himself as — a one-stop shop to all your health questions.

    Whether you want to know about germs, sexual health, diabetes, anti-aging, skin care, or nutrition, he’s got the answer.

    Or does he?

    I have always been very vocal about the fact that while he is definitely not a quack — and has a basic grasp on nutrition — I often find Dr. Oz’s dietary advice  to be shockingly inaccurate, misinformed, or misleading.

    A visit to his show’s website earlier today, for example, revealed two pieces of information so wrong I could not believe what I was reading!

    First up — Dr. Oz’s “go vegan challenge!” page, where he dispenses tips for anyone interested in going vegan for 28 days (I’ll take this opportunity to say I’m so over all these tired 28-day plans).

    In any case, here is one gem:

    “Vegans should take a multivitamin and B12 supplement to ensure they are getting enough protein.”

    Huh!?!  I don’t even know where to begin!

    The notion that vegans should take a multivitamin makes the ridiculous assumption that they couldn’t possibly get all their nutrients from food.  As with any other diet, it depends on the quality.

    Some omnivores’ diets provide enough nutrition, others don’t.  “All vegans need multivitamins” is untrue and unfairly paints vegan diets with a “nutritionally inadequate” brush.

    I do agree that some vegans can benefit from B12 supplements, but why not mention that vegans can get B12 from nutritional yeast as well as fortified dairy alternatives and breakfast cereals?

    What truly shocked me — because it is so off-the-mark — was the idea that vegans should take a multivitamin to ensure they get enough protein.

    Not only do multivitamins not provide protein — there is also no reason whatsoever for vegans to supplement extra protein in their diet.  Grains, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and vegetables all contain protein.

    Then, on his “sugar-free in 28 days” page, Dr. Oz promises to help people kick their “addictive” sugar habit.

    How does he do this?  By recommending agave nectar.

    Once again: WHAT!?!?!

    Agave nectar has as many calories as sugar, and nothing about it is inherently healthy — or healthier than sugar.

    Sure, it is slightly lower on the glycemic index, but the fact remains that replacing the sugar in your morning coffee with agave is not a healthier or lower-calorie choice.

    To make matters more confusing, agave is described as “high in calories”.  It’s not.  It is just as caloric as sugar.

    My wish for 2010?  When it comes to matters of nutrition, let real experts have the floor, Dr. Oz.


    Say What?: Sweet (In)justice

    Although Top Chef is one of my favorite competition-based reality shows, the two previous seasons have led to blog postings in which I express my frustration at the contestants’ and producers’ misunderstanding of basic nutrition concepts.

    This current season is no exception.

    This week’s “quickfire challenge” — a 45 minute challenge that grants the winning contestant immunity at the episode’s elimination ceremony — consisted of making a sugar-free dessert.

    Before introducing the challenge, host Padma Lakshmi showed the contestants a cart loaded with the various sugars found in the Top Chef pantry — white, raw, confectioners’, brown, etc. — which she wheeled out of the kitchen once the challenge began.

    “This will be interesting to watch!” I thought.

    Well, the first red flag went up when the concept of sugar-free desserts was referenced in the context of producing healthy, low-calorie options.

    Really? Because, often times, sugar-free varieties of cakes and pies use higher quantities of fat — mainly saturated — to make up for lost texture and taste.

    Consequently, it is not at all odd to find that a slice of sugar-free cake has just as many calories — if not more! — as the traditional version.

    Although “sugar-free” can sometimes be healthier and lower-calorie (i.e.: quick-cooking plain oatmeal is a healthier, lower-calorie alternative to pre-sweetened varieties,) you should never automatically make that connection in your head.

    Then, once the challenge was underway, I saw contestants using honey and agave. Oy.

    Apparently in Top Chef land, the word “sugar” is taken very literally — it only refers to a granulated sweetener that comes in large bags.

    Honey and agave are forms of sugar.

    Yes, it usually takes less agave to match the same level of sweetness of a certain amount of sugar, but a dessert made with agave or honey is NOT sugar-free!

    One contestant even used a chocolate coin in her dish. I immediately thought she would be disqualified, since any chocolate product contains sugar. Alas, the judging panel didn’t seem to have a problem with that.

    Top Chef execs: how about consulting with a Registered Dietitian when creating rules for nutrition-related challenges?


    Sneak Peek

    The folks at Smart Balance sent me samples of their new shelf-stable peanut butter product due on supermarket shelves this April.

    The selling points are:

    * The inclusion of flax oil, bringing the ALA Omega-3 fatty acid total of a single two-tablespoon serving to 1,000 milligrams (63% of the Daily Value)

    * The absence of partially hydrogenated oils (hence no trans fats)

    * The use of agave nectar as a sweetener, rather than table sugar (sucrose)

    Mind you, the first two selling points can already be found in the company’s Omega Peanut Butter (pictured at left).

    Both the smooth and crunchy varieties of this new variety passed my taste test (as well as that of fellow tasters I asked to sample the product), but let’s talk nutrition.

    Although the inclusion of agave nectar is touted as a healthier choice since its sweeter-than- sugar status means you need to use less of it to sweeten, it isn’t a big enough difference in this case.

    Smart Balance is being truthful when they advertise this peanut butter as containing “33% less sugar than leading brands,” but you are talking about 2 grams per serving as opposed to 3 grams per serving (which translates to just four fewer calories.)

    What absolutely confuses me, though, is the fact that the company’s Omega Peanut Butter — already in stores — only contains one gram of sugar (in the form of molasses) per serving.

    They could technically advertise this product as having “100% more sugar” than the one they have already launched!

    I am also disappointed by the use of the term “naturally sweetened” in the packaging.

    Remember, there is no concrete legal definition of the term “natural” for food advertising.

    It is a word that means absolutely nothing; it is simply used to conjure up ideas of healthy, “back to basics” eating.

    After all, poisonous mushrooms are natural, but that doesn’t mean they are good for us.

    I don’t think this is “unhealthy” peanut butter by any means, but its sole unique selling point — the use of agave nectar — just isn’t that big of a deal.


    You Ask, I Answer: Agave Nectar/Syrup

    One of my friends swears by agave nectar.

    She says it’s the best sweetener to use because it doesn’t spike your blood sugar and isn’t refined.

    What do you think?

    — Leah Strentle
    Palo Alto, CA

    A few years ago, agave nectar became a trendy health food, mainly for the reasons you cite.

    Vegans have long known about it, as it is a plant-based sweetener used in place of honey or white sugar (which is usually filtered with charcoal made from animal bones).

    It is indeed diabetic friendly since it does not spike blood glucose levels as much as pure sucrose (table sugar).

    Keep in mind, though, that if managing blood glucose levels is a concern, you can also think about pairing “high glycemic” foods with lower ones.

    For instance, drizzling some olive oil over a potato (a food with a high glycemic index) and eating it alongside a grilled chicken breast (a food with a low glycemic index) will not spike your blood sugar as much as if you were eating the potato completely by itself.

    At the end of the day, agave nectar is a sweetener.

    Remember, all sweeteners have 4 calories per gram. So, dowsing your pancakes in 4 tablespoons of agave syrup (or any non-diet sweetener, for that matter) will add 192 calories to your meal.

    Agave nectar’s advantage, though, is that since it is sweeter than table sugar, you need less agave than you would sugar to achieve the same level of sweetness.

    When baking, I find that when a recipe calls for a certain amount of table sugar, I can instead use half that amount of agave nectar without sacrificing taste (resulting in a finished product with several hundred fewer calories.)

    It is also worth pointing out that the reason why agave nectar ranks so low on the glycemic index is because it is mainly composed of fructose.

    Earlier this summer, researchers at the University of California at Davis compared the effects of drinking fructose-based versus sucrose-based beverages over a 10 week period on overweight adults.

    The results? Those drinking fructose-based beverages had higher triglyceriude and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels than those drinking beverages with a higher percentage of sucrose.

    I am not “knocking” agave nectar (again, I use it often when baking) but rather evening out the sweetener playing field.

    At the end of the day, keep this in mind: humans have been eating white table sugar for thousands of years. We know very well what sugar does to the body, since we’ve had the chance to study it for so long.

    Sugar in and of itself is not the devil. After all, it has been around for much longer than skyrocketing obesity rates, so rationalizing a strict avoidance of it as a “health issue” seems extreme to me.

    The problem is that people are eating too much of it!

    My thoughts? If you like the taste of sugar and have it in small amounts (no more than 30 or so grams a day), keep enjoying it.

    Similarly, if agave is your sweetener of choice, go ahead and enjoy it — but always be mindful of how much you use.

    It should not get the label of a “health food” simply because it is less refined than table sugar.


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