Agave! Salba! Find out which new finds in the health-food aisle are actually good for you.

March 30, 2010

Todd Huffman

 By Frances Largeman-Roth, RD
From Health magazine

Agave, Salba, stevia—oh my! Having trouble telling which new finds in the health-food aisle are actually good for you? Our helpful guide can point you in the right direction.

Agave nectar

What it is: A syrup made from the Mexican agave plant, which is used as a sweetener and to make mescal—a distilled spirit. (Tequila is a kind of mescal.)

Where you’ll find it: In the baking aisle, near the other sweeteners.

What it’s good for: The syrup is roughly 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, without being cloying, and it works well in drinks and baked goods. It has a lower glycemic index than sugar, so it doesn’t cause blood sugar levels to spike as sharply. And agave is a natural source of inulin, a fiber additive that promotes the growth of stomach-protecting probiotics.

Worth a try? If you’re looking for a less-processed sweetener, agave is a good choice. But it’s not calorie-free: 1 tablespoon has 60 calories. You’ll pay more, too: a 23.5-ounce bottle of organic agave is $8, while a 5-pound bag of sugar (which has more servings) costs about $4.

Rooibos (roy-i-bus)

What it is: A caffeine-free South African plant that is brewed as a tea; also known as red tea.

Where you’ll find it: In the tea and spice aisles, and where bottled iced tea is sold. You can even get a rooibos latte at Starbucks.

What it’s good for: Rooibos is naturally sweet, so it’s perfect iced with a little fresh mint or lemon for a low-calorie drink, and it delivers a nice hit of antioxidants. Rooibos also has been used for centuries to combat allergies and skin problems, although these benefits have not been documented.

Worth a try? If you enjoy the flavor of this tea, sure.

Stevia

What it is: A sweetener made from the South American stevia plant.

Where you’ll find it: In packets as Truvia and PureVia brands, and in beverages and other foods. SoBe LifeWater is sweetened with PureVia; some Odwalla drinks and Breyers’ YoCrunch 100 Calorie Packs include Truvia. Expect to see more stevia-sweetened products soon.

What it’s good for: It’s nearly carb-free, so stevia may be a smart choice for diabetics and other carb counters. If you’re watching your weight, you could also benefit: pure stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar but has zero calories.

Worth a try? It has a purer flavor than calorie-free artificial-sugar substitutes. But some people complain that stevia has a bitter aftertaste.

Salba seeds

What it is: Ever have a Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia Pet? Salba seeds are a strain of chia seeds, which have been eaten for centuries in Mexico and Guatemala.

Where you’ll find it: In the nuts-and-seeds section or supplement aisle. Salba is now in energy bars, salsa, and more.

What it’s good for: Use these nutty seeds the way you’d eat flaxseed—mixed into yogurt, tossed with cereal, or sprinkled over salads.

Worth a try? Yep. The seeds contain a very rich form of ALA omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory benefits. They are also high in fiber, gluten-free, non-allergenic, and a good source of protein. There’s some debate over whether Salba seeds are just white chia seeds with fancy branding: The Salba brand sells a 16-ounce jar of whole seeds for $27 plus shipping (SalbaStore.com), while the same amount of regular white chia seeds can be found for $12 (Amazon.com). Either way, they’re both good for you.

Açaí (ah-sigh-ee)

What it is: A berry from palm trees in Central and South America.

Where you’ll find it: In the freezer section and the supplement aisle, and in juices, nutrition bars, and cereals.

What it’s good for: These berries are rich in antioxidants and healthy fats. Frozen açaí pulp is great in smoothies (try our Sunrise Smoothie Parfait) and has a flavor between blueberries and dark chocolate.

Worth a try? Products made with açaí can be pricey, so don’t feel you have to load your cart with everything açaí. A better bet: sample açaí—and these other “It” foods—and work what you love into a well-balanced diet.

And what the heck is gluten-free?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten-free foods are often rice- or corn-based. While some people avoid gluten for medical reasons, others do so to lose weight. If you don’t have celiac disease, the benefits of going gluten-free are unclear, and it can be expensive.

 

 

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