I know that I touted the horridness of artificial sweeteners a couple of weeks ago and I suggested stevia and agave nectar as alternatives, but I have received a bunch of emails asking about these alternatives and if they are healthy for you. So, I wanted to discuss them with you...mostly because stevia was a bit controversial in the past!
Agave nectar is a sweetener mostly produced from the Blue Agave plant which is primarily grown in Mexico. It is a thinner consistency than honey, but much sweeter! The nectar is sweet because of its level of fructose, the sugars naturally found in fruits and veg,(usually 98%), and a small amount of glucose too (2%). Because of the high amount of fructose, and it is sweet, your body secretes a lot of insulin in response to the sweetener, although it has a much lower glycemic index level than standard sugar, diabetics should check their blood sugars frequently after eating this for the first few times to see how your body responds. The cool thing is that despite it being a liquid, agave can be substituted for honey for sugar in recipes, and it is a great sweetener for iced teas or coffees because it dissolves easily. Also it is made at a temperature less than 118F so, it is considered a treat for raw foodies AND vegan friendly (some raw foodies claim that is is cooked at a higher temp thus making it not truly a raw food, FYI). Ancient Aztecs used it as a balm for wounds and healing skin and many holistic healers still use it to this day (I cannot speak to the fact that slathering agave on an open wound will help it heal, seeing as that goes against most modern science beliefs- but if it worked for the ancient people, who am I??) I must say, there is some science behind the fact that it is an effective antibacterial for the bug staph aureus. So, whist it is a sweetener and a lower glycemic index than table sugar, it is concentrated fructose, so you won't have a sugar rush, but just be aware that sugars are sugars no matter where they come from!!
Onto Stevia, so stevia is a flowering shrub in the sunflower family that is grown in tropical and subtropical areas in North and South America. It is also a sugar substitute that has 300 times the sweetness of sugar (in high concentrations it can taste like licorice...I have never experienced that). It really doesn't boost blood sugar levels, so it is pretty good for dieters and diabetics (although diabetics, I always suggest frequent monitoring of blood sugars when eating a new food or changing your diet, just to be safe and see how your body reacts). Actually research is currently being done to look at the use of stevia in treating obesity and high blood pressure, and the results thus far are promising. There is other research being done to look at its use in prevention for osteoporosis (it makes egg shells stronger, so it is added to chicken feed in many farms) but it is very early in research right now. It has been used widely as a sweetener in Japan for years, but some countries do not allow its use, and the US only accepted stevia as a supplement in the '90's despite it being around for ages! Japanese scientists started studying it as an alternative to saccharin because it is considered a carcinogen there. Traditionally, in South America, stevia was used by various tribes as a treatment for heartburn. There was a study in the late 1980's that stated the breakdown of stevia in the liver was detrimental to health and caused mutagens (something that can cause mutations in DNA/cell structures), but that study was weak and has been disproved by a plethora of other research, thus as of 1994 it was allowed as a supplement in the US and then the FDA gave full approval in 2008 for Truvia (brand name for stevia product). It can also be used as a substitute for sugar in baking/cooking.
As, I always say, everything in moderation is key BUT both are adequate substitutions for sugar. I tend to use stevia more because there are health benefits from its ingestion, BUT agave, I find, is easier to bake with! Give them a try, let me know what you think....epsecially if you usually are a chemical sweetener type of person!!
Yours in Good Health