The Truth About Agave

For a while, I was using agave nectar to replace sugar in some of my baking recipes. I thought this “natural” sweetener was a gift from heaven! But then I began to question it, because if I have learned only one thing at NTI, it is to do your own research and come up with your own decisions about the foods you put into your body.

Here is what I found:

Most types of agave are actually a starch that is converted into a refined fructose. Depending on the source of the syrup and the amount of heat used to process it, agave can be anywhere from 55% - 90% fructose. This “conversion” sometimes includes high levels of heat and chemical alteration, such that the fructose found in agave nectar is more concentrated than that found in high fructose corn syrup. Refined fructose can eventually turn into triglycerides in the blood or be stored as fat. Fructose is not converted to glucose and therefore does not alter blood glucose levels. This is why claims are made about agave being safe for diabetics. However, it has other detrimental affects to our bodies that go beyond blood sugar levels, such as mineral depletion, cardio-vascular disease, pregnancy complications, and others.

The fructose in most types of agave has no enzymes, vitamins or minerals for digestion, and therefore will attempt to obtain these from other nutrients in your body, leading to nutrient depletion. Agave is not a whole food. It is fractionated and processed and has lost many of the nutrients found in the original plant. Agave nectar and tequila come from the same plant. Natural enzymes in agave are removed to prevent agave from fermenting into tequila.

Finally, there are no strict controls around production of agave, so labels should not be completely trusted. Most agave originally came from the blue agave plant, but a shortage in this plant could be causing use of other agave plants that are lower quality and more toxic.

The core of the agave plant is harvested after 7-10 years and the sap is removed and heated to create agave. Usually you’ll find agave labeled as raw, light or amber. Amber agave is actually just fructose that has been heated at a higher temperature, and therefore burned and darkened. Agave labeled raw has not been heated above 120 degrees, which does help it retain some nutritional elements. Light agave is heated to a level somewhere in between those of amber and raw.

The producers of Madhava brand agave nectar claim they make it in a way that does not destroy nutrients and little to no heat is used. This brand, bought in the raw form, may be a better option than others. It's a Colorado company, so I'd love to be able to support them. They make great honey.

The choice is up to you. Some types of raw organic agave may have similar qualities to raw organic honey. If I use agave I will stick with the raw, organic type. However, I am going to mainly stick to sweeteners like raw organic honey, stevia, organic maple syrup or dates for my baking.

I’ll talk about raw organic honey another day – it’s an amazing food!


Pumpkin Seeds

But first, some things to note:

1. I have officially joined Facebook! I have created a page for Pierce Whole Nutrition and you can follow me by clicking on the pink Facebook icon on the top right. Become a fan and try out the Healthy Pumpkin Bread recipe I posted yesterday. It’s the perfect thing to make with your leftover pumpkin from the pumpkin apple pie in Tuesday’s post.

2. I had a few people ask about nutrition information for the pumpkin apple pie recipe. The reason why I did not include this is because I truly believe we all focus too much on counting calories or fat grams, and not enough on the actual quality of the food we are eating. If we can switch our focus to whole, fresh, unprocessed foods, and create recipes made from these foods, we can begin to change our perspective. We will see food for its nutrients and the benefits we are giving our bodies, rather than for its calorie or fat content. This will lead us to make more balanced choices about what we decide to put into our bodies. I will try to talk about the health benefits of certain foods when I do give you a recipe though.

Now onto pumpkin seeds…

Why do you carve? I do it for the seeds.

It’s fun to have bright, scary pumpkins at your door when trick-or-treaters come knocking. But I have to say that the best part about carving pumpkins each year is the seeds. Ed and I intentionally chose huge pumpkins just so we’d get the most seeds… and when Ted (brother) and his girlfriend Allison came over with their pumpkins, it was clear they had done the same.

Roasting the seeds is simple – just spread a little oil on a cookie sheet (I used grapeseed oil because it maintains its nutrients at higher temperatures than other oils), sprinkle with some sea salt, and roast at 325 degrees. Roasting times will vary, but plan on it taking at least 20 minutes, and try to shuffle them a bit halfway through.

The seeds were delicious, and they taste even better when you know how nutritious they are. Pumpkins and their seeds are in the same family as cantaloupe, cucumbers and squash. They have high amounts of essential fatty acids, zinc, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, iron, copper and protein.

Pumpkin seeds have more magnesium than most other foods. Yesterday I wrote about vitamin D and its importance for calcium absorption. Magnesium is similar in that without it, calcium will not be properly absorbed. However, unlike vitamin D, magnesium cannot be obtained naturally. We must get it from foods such as seeds, lemon, grapefruit, nuts, green vegetables, apples and figs. Magnesium is found mainly in bones and muscles, and can help with muscle relaxation, bone strength and blood circulation.

Pumpkin seeds also are rich in phytosterols, which are plant compounds that can help reduce cholesterol in the blood (you want cholesterol in your cells, but too much can cause overflow to the blood, which can be harmful - more on that later), enhance the immune system, and even decrease risk of certain cancers. Other items containing phytosterols include sunflower seeds, pistachios and sesame seeds – all yummy snacks!

And the seeds weren’t the only thing that turned out great…

Happy carving!

(and yes, those are my slippers that Ed is wearing...)


Vitamin D

I have gotten so many great questions from you guys and they are ALL important and will be addressed here. You’ve asked about which vitamins are best to take during this flu season; the health differences between honey and agave; dealing with toddlers who are picky eaters; benefits of drinking water (and how much to drink); healthy eating on a budget; how to make sure babies are getting enough iron; and even a question about vitamins that are good for men’s health! My male readers may be a small group, but they care about nutrition just as much as the rest of us!

There is so much valuable information to be shared and I am excited to be a part of that for you. Today I am talking about Vitamin D, because it pertains to all of us: women, men and children. It’s a great vitamin because it is one of the only ones that our bodies can produce naturally. But there are too many people with a vitamin D deficiency. I believe that with a little more information and awareness on how to ensure you are obtaining sufficient levels, many health issues can be avoided. This is especially important for your little guys and gals because their bodies are always changing and adapting, and they need the proper vitamins to support that. A recent study revealed that 20% of children 11 and under do not get enough vitamin D.

Basically, you need to obtain vitamin D from natural sunlight. You could try drinking 10 glasses of orange juice and/or milk a day or eating salmon for dinner six days a week, but that’s just not realistic. There are also vitamin D supplements, which work fine for people unable to get daily sunlight, such as the elderly or those in certain climates. However, the easiest, cheapest, and best source is the sun. Great news, right? Just 10-20 minutes per day and you are fully loaded with your vitamin D!

Here’s a quick overview of how it works:

1. You need to expose at least 10% of your body to natural sunlight five days per week.

2. The sunlight is turned into vitamin D in the skin.

3. The vitamin D enters the liver to get modified into 25-hydroxy vitamin D (this is the type that is measurable in your blood by doctors).

4. Vitamin D then moves to your kidneys where it is modified into its active form, 125-dihydroxy vitamin D.

5. 125-dihydroxy vitamin D tells your intestines to absorb calcium efficiently and regulate blood calcium and phosphorous for healthy and strong bones.

Vitamin D is essential for proper calcium absorption. You can eat yogurt and cheese and drink milk all day long, but if you are vitamin D deficient, you will be calcium deficient too. Some common diseases that are directly linked to vitamin D deficiency are osteoporosis, high blood pressure, rickets, cancer, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and some autoimmune diseases. One of my readers did ask if we should all be taking vitamin D supplements during the flu season. In some studies those infected with the flu virus also tested deficient in vitamin D. But bottom line is you need it for overall health, not just now but all the time.

The problem is, people are so concerned about sunscreen these days that they are actually intentionally blocking the vitamin D out. Even an spf 4 sunblock is enough to prevent the rays from hitting your skin and creating vitamin D. I’m not suggesting you go out and fry yourself. Trust me, my mom has red hair and freckles. I know how harmful the sun can be! But don’t be afraid to have your morning tea on your back patio and soak up a few rays before applying your daily moisturizer with spf 45 that you’re so reliant on to keep your skin wrinkle-free and youthful. And it’s okay to send your kids out to play for 10 minutes before turning them into little white ghosts. They NEED the direct sunlight! For those of you at work inside all day, try taking a 10 minute walk over your lunch break or eating outside a few days a week.

If you are concerned you are not getting enough vitamin D, I recommend getting tested and then speaking with your doctor about a quality supplement to take if needed. There is a wide range of supplements, so get informed prior to making a decision.

So take some time today to enjoy the fall sunshine, and you no longer have to think of the sun as a big evil animal in the sky. It’s there to help you stay healthy!

By the way, as I am typing this I am looking out into a snowy backyard here in Denver… guess I have to eat salmon for dinner!


Pumpkin Apple Pie: A Perfect Compromise

First of all, I want to thank all of you who visited my blog yesterday! I was truly overwhelmed! I had more readers for the first day than I ever could have wished for, so thank you. Your posted comments were very encouraging, and the emails I received were full of great questions and topics that I cannot wait to blog about!

Some of you asked about signing up for e-mail subscription to the blog. I have added a space on the sidebar where you can now do that. Hope it helps!

Now onto the recipe...

Whenever pie is offered at Thanksgiving, I am always torn between pumpkin or apple. So I thought I would try one that merged the two flavors and see how it turned out. My guinea pigs were Ed (loves apple pie), my brother Ted (loves pumpkin pie), and Ted’s girlfriend Allison (likes desserts with pumpkin and apple).

Whole Wheat Pie Crust

¾ cup whole wheat flour

½ cup steel cut oats

1 tbsp raw organic honey

½ tsp sea salt

½ cup cold organic butter, cut into small pieces

¼ cup cold water

Combine flour, oats and salt. Blend in butter and honey with mixer until mixture is lumpy. Blend in water slowly by hand, until mixture holds together. Shape dough into a round ball and place on floured piece of wax paper. Top with another piece of wax paper and roll it out to about 1/8-inch thickness. Press dough into pie plate.

Pumpkin Apple Pie Filling

1/3 cup brown sugar

½ cup raw organic honey

1 tbsp arrowroot

1 tsp sea salt

2 tbsp ground cinnamon

1/3 cup water

2 tbsp organic butter

2 apples (I used one Granny Smith and 1 Honeycrisp)

1 egg

¾ cup fresh (or canned) pumpkin

¼ tsp ground cloves

¼ tsp ground ginger

¾ cup lowfat milk

1 tbsp olive oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Core and thinly slice apples (I used the food processor – easiest way).

Mix brown sugar, arrowroot, 1 tbsp cinnamon, salt, water and butter into a pot and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. When mixture boils, add sliced apples. Toss for 4-5 minutes so that apples are coated in mixture. Remove from heat.

In separate bowl, mix together egg, honey, pumpkin, 1 tbsp cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and milk.

Pour apple mixture into pie crust. Spoon pumpkin mixture over the top.

Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and bake until filling is just set in the middle (it took me about 40 minutes). Let cool completely on a wire rack, and enjoy with vanilla gelato!

The verdict: Ed, Ted and Allison all loved the pie! I served it warm, with the gelato of course. I think this pie would be the perfect Thanksgiving dessert to impress your family and friends and satisfy all tastes!


Let me introduce myself.

Name: Ann LaFave Pierce

Age: 27

City: Denver, CO

Husband: Ed

Work: Student at Nutrition Therapy Institute in Denver; part-time work at Metropolis Center for Holistic Health

Play: Skiing, running, golf, Pilates, gardening (with little success), cooking (with moderate success), baking, traveling to visit family in Midwest and East Coast, reading, Operation Frontline Colorado volunteer, hanging out with Ed at home

In August, I left my finance job to pursue a career in nutrition. Now I am a student in the Master Nutrition Therapist program at the Nutrition Therapy Institute. NTI’s focus is on holistic nutrition and wellness.

I hope to graduate in 2011 and start my own nutrition business. In the meantime, this blog will serve as a way for me to share and express what I learn about nutrition, either in one of my classes or as a result of my own curiosity or personal experiences.

Your question: Why would I read a nutrition blog written by someone who is not a “real” nutritionist yet, has a background in finance and is not a great cook or gardener?

My answer: You are either my mother, one of my sisters, or one of my close friends or my sisters’ close friends;


You want a place where you can read about nutrition from someone who:

Is passionate and mildly obsessed with the subject, learns new things every day that change the way she thinks and acts, is willing to do some nutritional research and culinary experimentation and then write about it here for anyone’s benefit, and - above all else - does not hesitate to occasionally enjoy ice cream after dinner (a LaFave family trademark!), a glass of wine before noon when on vacation, or a Ralphie burger and local brew (and the french fries off of Ed’s plate) from Denver’s oldest bar!

How it will work: I will post something every day. Everything will be related to health and wellness in some way, with an emphasis on a holistic approach to nutrition. Sometimes I will have a guest writer present something in their area of expertise. The links at the top (Recipes and Nutrition 101) will be linked to posts containing either a recipe or basic nutrition information. So right now they don't contain any information because I haven't posted anything yet! But soon they will.

Also, I don't have facebook up and running yet but hope to shortly.

Thanks for reading… stop by tomorrow for a great pumpkin apple pie recipe!