Sugar is Sugar, By Any Other Name… Or Is It? (Part 3)

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Well, we’re slowly but surely making our way through the sugar maze! Hopefully, you haven’t tired of reading about the many guises of sugar; personally, I think it’s pretty fascinating to learn about the intricate details and characteristics of something that has gotten such a bad rap for so long (but then, again, I am a dietitian…). Anyway, we’ll look at another, lesser known sweetener this week—agave syrup—and also take a peek at maple syrup.

Agave syrup. Agave syrup, or nectar, has become somewhat popular these days. You may not be all that familiar with agave, so here’s a little background: Agave syrup is derived from the Blue Weber species of agave (Agave tequilana), which is a succulent plant found in Mexico and southwestern United States (this plant isn’t a cactus, but it is used to make tequila!). Agave syrup is made by boiling down the liquid part of the agave plant, thereby concentrating it, and making it sweet (similar to how sap from maple trees is processed to make maple syrup). Fructose accounts for about 90% of the carbohydrate in this syrup, with the remainder coming from glucose. And because of the high fructose content, the glycemic index of agave syrup is relatively low (about 40 to 45). For this reason, many people with diabetes have started using agave syrup as a sweetener in hot and cold beverages and in cooking and baking. It’s also become a popular sweetener among vegans, who use it in place of honey.

You may be tempted to try agave syrup, or perhaps already have. It’s a fairly new sweetener in that it’s only been used as such since about the 1990’s. If you’re currently using this syrup, please share your experiences with this sweetener by leaving a comment. In the meantime, realize that there’s not a lot of “scientific” information available yet, although there are plenty of testimonials extolling its virtues on the Internet!

Keep in mind that agave syrup isn’t a free food; it contains calories and carbohydrate, which must be accounted for in your eating plan. According to one manufacturer, one tablespoon of agave syrup contains 60 calories and 16 grams of carbohydrate. Granted, it’s about 40% sweeter than table sugar, so if you decide to give it a go, you’ll likely end up using less of it. Three-quarters of a cup of agave syrup is equivalent in sweetness to one cup of sugar, by the way.

Agave syrup is somewhat like honey in its consistency, although a little less thick. It also comes in dark and light varieties. And since it apparently is digested and absorbed more slowly, thus having a lower glycemic index, you may notice that it has less of an impact on your blood glucose levels than other types of sweeteners.

Where can you get agave syrup? You might not see it in the aisles of your favorite grocery store just yet. Natural/health food stores will likely carry it, and you can also purchase it from retailers on the Internet.

Maple syrup. Another “natural” type of sweetener, maple syrup is famous for its distinct flavor and rich, amber color. Maple syrup comes from the sap of the sugar, black, or red maple tree. The sap is boiled until the liquid has evaporated. The boiling concentrates the sugar in the sap, rendering a sweet syrup that’s about 60% sucrose.

Maple syrup also has a few redeeming nutritional qualities: It’s a significant source of manganese, a mineral that is necessary for several enzyme systems in the body that are involved in energy metabolism; it also contains a fair amount of zinc, a trace mineral necessary for a healthy immune system, DNA synthesis, and wound healing.

Pure maple syrup is graded, based on its color and flavor. The higher the grade, the lighter the syrup. A syrup with an A or AA grade will have a less distinct flavor, whereas grade B syrup will give you a rich maple flavor. Beware of maple-flavored syrups; often called “pancake syrups,” these are less expensive syrups that contain primarily high-fructose corn syrup and are flavored with either a small amount of “real” maple syrup, or an artificial flavoring.

One tablespoon of maple syrup contains 52 calories and 13 grams of carbohydrate, similar to other types of sweeteners. Its glycemic index is about 50, putting this syrup into the “low GI” category.

Next week: high fructose corn syrup!

For previous entries on this topic, see the following:
“Sugar Is Sugar, By Any Other Name…Or Is It? (Part 1)”
“Sugar Is Sugar, By Any Other Name…Or Is It? (Part 2)”

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