Move over, sugar and honey. Make room, NutraSweet and Splenda.
Much of the latest sweetener buzz centers on agave, a syrup that comes from a plant in Mexico.
"Nectar-like agave syrup is one of the hottest of the new sweeteners, used in baked goods and drinks, and available in squeeze bottles in natural-food stores," writes commercial baker Mani Niall in "Sweet!" (Lifelong Books, $18.95), his new primer on cooking with natural sugars and sweeteners.
Utahn Steven Richards is capitalizing on that interest with his agave product called Xagave. To help people get better acquainted with it, he wrote a cookbook titled "Delicious Meets Nutritious" (BetterBody Foods, $29.95), and he has given cooking demonstrations at venues such as Orson Gygi and Bosch kitchen centers.
"It's the only sweetener that's natural and organic and is as versatile as sugar," Richards said.
"It's the only sweetener I know of that has health benefits associated with it. It can be used for cooking, canning and baking, without leaving any aftertaste."
Richards, a graduate of Provo High and Brigham Young University law school, practiced law and worked in investment banking in Los Angeles for more than a decade. About five years ago he moved to Utah and bought Graywhale Entertainment.
"But I always had this passion with cooking," he said. "My family has a long history of diabetes, and I learned that a lot of type 2 diabetes can be avoided through diet and exercise."
After he began cooking with agave, he traveled to Mexico, spent time with the farmers and hired medical doctors to verify its health benefits before getting into the business.
Agave has been used in Mexico for thousands of years, as the blue variety is fermented into tequila. The plant looks similar to a cactus, but it's part of the lily family.
Richards' product is a blend of both blue and white agave varieties, to combine the best flavor, cooking qualities and health benefits of the two, he said.
His company, BetterBody Foods, buys from a co-op of 700 farmers with certified organic fields. The product is bottled in Salt Lake City. He's also developing an organic maple-flavored agave syrup that can be used on pancakes and waffles.
He outlines some of the advantages:
It's low on the glycemic index, the bible of low-carb dieters. This means it has a less dramatic effect on blood-sugar levels than refined sugars, such as white sugar and corn syrup. High glycemic-index foods cause a rapid spike in blood sugar, followed by a drop that can leave a person feeling lethargic and hungry.
A teaspoon of agave is 20 calories, and regular sugar is 16 calories per teaspoon. But agave is 1.4 to 1.5 times sweeter, so you don't need as much to get the same sweetening power. Also, because of its moistness and other cooking properties, you can reduce the amount of butter, oil or other fats in your recipe, resulting in more calorie savings.
The proprietary Xagave blend includes inulin, a prebiotic fiber that helps maintain a healthful intestinal system, boosts your immune system and promotes regularity. Some studies have shown that inulin improves calcium and magnesium absorption.
Inulin is found in trace amounts in all fruits and vegetables, but the highest concentrations are found in chicory, agave and Jerusalem artichokes. Inulin also enhances the texture and mouthfeel of foods, an important factor in baking and cooking.
Agave contains calcium, iron and other vitamins and minerals.
It is minimally processed and popular among vegans, who consider agave an ethically better choice than honey.
But the sweetener also carries some disadvantages and unknowns:
Price. An 18-ounce bottle retails for $8.99, and a gallon is around $42.99. Richards said it's expensive because an agave plant takes seven to eight years to mature, and it's only found in Mexico.
Availability. While other brands of agave are found in major grocery stores, Xagave is currently found mainly in Bosch Kitchen Centers, Good Earth, Orson Gygi, Kitchen Kneads stores, Liberty Heights Fresh, Dave's Nutrition stores and on the Web site www.xagave.com.
Richards expects to soon have it at local Associated Foods grocery stores.
There's not a huge body of research to prove or disprove health claims.
"Although it's been used since before Columbus arrived, I don't think it's been well-used in American culture until recently," said Denise Martinez, a University of Utah nutrition professor who uses blue agave nectar as a sweetener in herbal teas.
But she was aware of a positive study from the February 2008 British Journal of Nutrition, where scientists in Mexico found that the fructans in agave nectar may help regulate appetite and lipid and glucose metabolism, and is beneficial to the microflora in the intestinal tract.
Sue McLaughlin, president over health care and education for the American Diabetes Association, said the association has no policy about the use of agave by those with diabetes.
"I found a relatively small amount of information or science regarding its use, to date," she said. "It would be difficult to provide a scientific basis to support that it has benefit over other options."
She cautioned that it's important to know the composition of the specific agave product, because she has read that in Mexico, some agave syrups have added corn syrup.
Agave still contains calories.
"Sometimes people misinterpret that just because a product does not contain sugar, or contains less sugar, that this is all that matters," warned McLaughlin.
"They will miss the bigger picture of considering calorie content, and that use of these products could end up raising their blood sugar as much and/or give them as many calories as they meant to avoid, or even more."
Although glycemic index can be an important component in maintaining glucose levels, for people with diabetes, total carbohydrate consumed is the key, said Pauline Williams, a registered dietitian with Intermountain Healthcare, who has taught classes for diabetics.
There's the theory that eating too much of any type of sweetener accustoms the palate to increasing amounts of sweetness.
"Many foods that use artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes are foods we should limit in our diet, such as cookies, cakes, candy and soda," said Williams.
"We should focus on eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, than finding ways to make a 'sometimes food' justifiable by swapping out the sugar with a substitute. Choose foods for their total nutritional value, not one piece, such as sugar. All foods can fit in moderation."
Martinez cautioned, "Americans have a strong sweet tooth, and in Utah especially. It's possible to overdo it with everything. It's like when they came out with fat-free cookies and people thought they could eat a whole box and not gain weight."
But even if a person avoids desserts, the variety of recipes in Richards' cookbook shows that many foods contain hidden sugar, such as ketchup and salad dressings.
Traditional coleslaw recipes call for 1?3 to 1 cup sugar, and many commercially made teriyaki sauces contain high-fructose corn syrup. His recipes also incorporate whole grains.
"We need to get away from processed foods, use fresh ingredients and get away from sugar and white flour," he said. "You'll feel better, have more energy and will be lot healthier."
TRIPLE BERRY TOPPING
4 cups fresh frozen berries
1 cup water
1/2 cup Xagave
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Put berries, water and Xagave in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer.
Mix cornstarch in 2 tablespoons water, and stir until all lumps are gone. Pour cornstarch mix into berry mix while stirring slowly. Stir until topping thickens (1-2 minutes) and begins to bubble.
If it does not thicken to desired level within a minute or two, repeat cornstarch and water step. Serve hot over pancakes and waffles.
— "Delicious Meets Nutritious"
1/8 cup canola or olive oil
1/4 cup vinegar (white rice, white or apple)
1/3 cup Xagave
1/2 cup Miracle Whip or mayonnaise
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 head shredded green cabbage
1/2 head shredded red cabbage
2 carrots, grated
Whisk dressing ingredients together until smooth and creamy. In a large bowl, combine cabbages and carrots. Add dressing and mix. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before serving.
Tip: Prepackaged coleslaw mix can be substituted for the cabbage and carrots.
— "Delicious Meets Nutritious"
FRESH GRILLED PEACHES
1 peach per person being served
Xagave for drizzling
Peel, halve peaches and remove pit. Place open side of each peach half on the grill. Cook 1-2 minutes. Remove from grill and drizzle with Xagave.
If desired, top with whipped cream that's been sweetened with Xagave.