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AGAVE NECTAR

What it is: Several types of agave, the plant that's used to make tequila, are blended to create this liquid sweetener.

Where to find it: At natural-food stores, in some grocery stores, like Whole Foods Market, and in various baked goods.

How to use it: "It's great for teas and coffee, but it's a little difficult to bake with," says Sandhu. "I use it at about a third of the capacity of sugar--agave nectar is far sweeter than sugar or honey, so you have to reduce the amount a recipe calls for. I look for recipes that use another liquid sweetener, like honey, as the base. I also tend to lower my oven temperature when I use it because agave nectar browns a bit more. It's probably not the best option out there for beginner bakers."

Health Rx: Agave nectar's benefits are still under debate. "It doesn't raise the blood sugar as rapidly as sugar," says Sandon. "And although it has more calories than sugar--about 20 calories per teaspoon--agave nectar is sweeter, so you can use less of it." There is some concern about agave's high fructose content, however; some experts wonder if it will have the same metabolic effect as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which has been blamed for increasing rates of obesity. But experts still don't know whether the large quantities of HFCS we're consuming are partly responsible for America's obesity problem, or whether HFCS just happened to enter the American diet at the same time as negative lifestyle changes that led to weight gain.

The bottom line, say experts: We all could afford a little less sweet in our lives. "If you're eating a lot of foods that have these alternative sweeteners in them, that means you're still probably eating a lot of cookies, cakes, and other processed foods that aren't good for you," says Sandon. "We need to get back to eating more whole foods. Sugar substitutes are not a substitute for a healthy diet."

The Scoop On the Most Popular Sweeteners

Rumors persist about the health hazards of artificial sweeteners such as Sweet'N Low, Splenda, and Equal, but several food-safety groups and regulatory bodies, including the FDA, have consistently deemed them safe for consumption.

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