As a young person I used to horde all things sugar. From Twinkies to jelly beans, peanut butter cups to sugar cubes, I was the sweet tooth pirate. I would capture my sugary booty and hide it well.
I will never be fully excused from all of my crimes related to sweet gluttony. I pilfered my brother's Halloween candy, just a little at first and finally enough that my deeds were fully exposed.
The worst of all my dirty deeds remains forever inscribed in the family tome. Every Sunday, I use to deliver handpicked flowers from my father's garden to the neighbors, who in turn rewarded my generosity with candy, cookies or anything sweet. This exchange had become a kind of neighborhood custom until one particular morning when an early frost ruined my bountiful bouquets and I was left desperate to come up with some other loot to trade. I finally settled on my parents' cookware, which I'd like to say I deliberated over and considered easily replaceable, but I'm not altogether sure my conscience was yet so developed. I knew enough to cover my goods with a towel as I piled them on my Radio Flyer so as to make a quick getaway. I don't remember the story I gave the neighbors about why my parents were throwing away all their pots and pans, but it must have been a good one because my culinary family used only the finest Dansk cast iron cookware. I was duly rewarded with sticks of gum, peanut brittle, and salt water taffy, which preoccupied me until later that evening when my father set out to make his famous Chicken Paprika.
The point of this story is that most of us at one time or another in our lives would do just about anything to satisfy a sweet tooth. All cultures have their own affinity for something sweet. From its purest form to its most adulterated, the desire for fructose, sucrose and glucose is universal.
Apparently Americans consume an average of 80 grams of sugar per day, much of it in the form of government subsidized, genetically modified, high fructose corn syrup. According to Andrew Weil, M.D., "High Fructose Corn Syrup is a recent invention of the food industry, made by an enzyme-mediated process... It has been considered a 'revolutionary' food science innovation because it retains moisture and prevents drying, controls crystallization, and blends with other sweeteners, acids and flavorings. Manufacturers love it, and it has become the main sweetener used in processed foods today. Everything from soft drinks and juices to salad dressings, ketchup, jams, jellies, ice cream and many others contain HFCS."
Weil believes HFCS has possible disruptive effects on metabolism, and some have linked it to diabetes. While it's easy to assume that the majority of super-sized Americans slurp up soft drinks, munch on candy bars and down pints of ice cream to get their sugar quota, it is unfortunately not that simple. Many people believe they are looking after themselves by consuming prepared snacks and beverages that are marketed as healthy, yet that granola bar and energy drink are usually full of HFCS. Other people are intent on a sugar fix but equally intent on preserving their figure, so they ingest sugar substitutes with unpronounceable names, such as Trichloragalactosucrose, commonly known as Splenda. Like HFCS, this product has come under scrutiny in recent years (see www.truthaboutsplenda.com).
Looking at how other cultures address their sweet cravings can help us come up with some healthier alternatives to refined sugar and sugar substitutes. My friend Citlali Cyasillas told me about a special treat her grandfather used to make when she was a young child in Juchitlan, in the Mexican state of Jalisco. It is common in parts of Mexico to enjoy the nectar of maguey, a wild agave plant that grows in abundance on hillsides. According to Citlali, on special occasions her grandfather would dig a pit in which he would roast a whole maguey fruit, which resembles a pineapple. Children and adults alike would then suck on pieces of the roasted plant to extract the juice. Citlali says the maguey, or agave nectar, is believed to be sacred good for both the body and the soul.
Always popular for its use in tequila, the agave plant is now growing in demand as a popular sugar substitute. Agave nectar, almost entirely composed of fructose, is produced without chemicals and considered by many to be the healthiest and tastiest sweetener available. It has been chosen as the preferred sugar alternative by the American Dietetic Association for its low glycemic index, at least 10 percent lower than honey and more than 50 percent lower than sugar. Chefs magazine calls agave nectar a "preferred sweetening agent" for its mild flavor and its high solubility.
Not only is agave becoming a preferable sweetener, it is considered to have health benefits as well. It is said to help with the healthy function of the gall bladder by helping metabolize fats. Mixed with citrus juice it can be used as a natural laxative, and some health experts claim its regular use will help lower cholesterol.
Perhaps I cannot atone for my youthful sins surrounding sugar, but I can honestly say I am a reformed sugar addict. Despite an occasional urge for some very dark chocolate, having discovered agave nectar I may be able to live without sugar altogether. I use it in tea, for baking cookies, sweetening spicy dishes such as curry, making muffins, and on my oatmeal. Today, in fact, I am using the agave nectar to sweeten a dark chocolate birthday cake laced with real cocoa nibs. I may even try using the sweeter in my homemade vanilla ice cream.