Saturday, November 15, 2014
Food fads and the gullible
Back when I still worked at the Centers for Disease Control, one of my colleagues began pushing agave nectar as a substitute for sugar. I'm not sure why. Supposedly because the agave nectar is sweeter than sugar, you'll use less of it. If the reason for using agave nectar is to cut back on calories, you'd better hope that to your taste buds it seems a whole lot sweeter because when you start comparing calories on a teaspoon to teaspoon basis sugar wins. Sugar has 16 calories in a teaspoon; agave nectar has 20. Anyway, at the time the agave nectar was being pushed by my colleague, I humored her, used it in my coffee, and thought to myself, "Okay. Not bad." So the next time I was at Publix I looked for agave nectar.
Remember the quinoa experience? Well, agave wasn't quite as much of a sticker shock eye opener, but at the time it struck me as fairly pricey for the amount the bottle contained. However, back then (this was about five years ago), agave was a recent arrival on supermarket shelves and Dr. Oz (who's apparently never met a food fad he didn't love) was pushing it on his show. He has since back peddled. For various reasons (market forces? economy of scale?) the price has dropped; it is now cheaper ounce for ounce than honey. It is, of course, still a lot more expensive than cane sugar.
Like the quinoa, the agave nectar was a gift. I have a friend who works at a summer camp that caters to rich kids from Chicago; every year when the camp shuts down at the end of the season the staff have to completely empty the kitchen. Anything that is perishable, might attract varmints (e.g., raccoons), or would be ruined by freezing is removed. Some of it goes to area food pantries and some goes home with the maintenance guys who in turn pass some on to friends and family. Last year I was the recipient of several boxes of quinoa, probably because I actually knew what the stuff was (or was the only one who was willing to try it). This year it was a bottle of agave nectar.*
Unlike the quinoa, the agave nectar is actually edible. It's nicely innocuous. When I dump it in my coffee or tea, I can't tell the difference between using it and using ordinary sugar. Am I using less in terms of total amounts than I would if it was the usual teaspoon of sugar? Who knows. It's hard to do a side by side comparison when agave is a liquid and sugar is a solid. Is there an advantage to using agave instead of sugar? I'm not sure. I've heard some people tout it as being more "natural," but from what I've read the process most commonly used for extracting it from the agave plant is as highly industrialized as the process involved in making high fructose corn syrup. There's a lot more involved than just crushing the plant and boiling the resulting sap. There is a type of traditional agave nectar that comes much closer to the type of processing used for traditional cane syrup, but that's not the agave nectar you're going to find on the shelves at a typical Kroger.
In any case, whether traditionally produced or cranked out in an industrial refinery, the sugars in agave are primarily fructose, which, as other writers have pointed out, puts agave a whole lot closer to being just another form of high fructose corn syrup than it does to anything that's actually good for you. High fructose corn syrup has gotten a bad reputation for a reason: research has shown that the human body does process fructose differently than it does sucrose. High amounts of fructose in a person's diet can contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome, i.e., that lethal combination of weight gain and type II diabetes. So why on earth would anyone think agave nectar would be a healthy alternative to ordinary sugar?
I have heard that hard core vegans like agave nectar because it doesn't involve animals in any way, shape, or form. They substitute it for honey because they apparently view honey as off limits because it's bee vomit and therefore an animal product. Well, cane sugar, beet sugar, maple syrup, and Karo syrup have always been 100% non-animal products, so why agave would suddenly look more appealing than any of the non-fructose loaded alternatives baffles me. It has to be yet another triumph of marketing cancelling out common sense.
Of maybe it's just that magic "organic" seal on the bottles. Who knows. It's a mystery.
*I get other stuff, too, but it's not as much fun to write about a giant unopened bag of Kellogg's Froot Loops or the institutional-size jug of stir fry sauce. Unlike the quinoa, the Froot loops did not end up in a bird feeder.