Q: Is grape seed extract beneficial for my health?
A: Grape seed extract—the ground-up seeds of grapes—are naturally high in proanthocyanidins, potent antioxidants that defend against free radical damage of cells and may help prevent chronic diseases. Preliminary studies have shown that grape seed extract shows promise in maintaining blood vessel health and healthy blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels, as well as protection against diabetes-related eye disease and age-related cognitive decline, as well as potential anti-cancer effects (particularly for skin cancer.)
Since the majority of studies using grape seed extract have been done in animals, more clinical intervention trials are needed to determine the impact of grape seed extract on human health. Currently, there is no recommended daily dose for grape seed extract; researchers typically use 100–300 milligrams grape seed extract supplements per day in studies. However, practice caution when taking blood thinners, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, heart medications or cancer treatments, as grape seed extract many interfere with other medications. As always, consult your health care provider before taking any supplement.
—Victoria Shanta Retelny, RDN
Q: Is agave nectar better than sugar?
A: Agave nectar climbs the popularity charts with health conscious consumers as a “natural,” kosher, and vegan sugar substitute. But just how “natural” is this sweetener? The nectar comes from Mexican blue agave plants, which contain a thin honey-like liquid. The agave plant is cooked, chopped and filtered into a thickened, amber liquid before it’s bottled. Thus, agave nectar requires less processing than cane or beet sugar, but it’s more processed than honey.
The resulting agave nectar is about 1½ times as sweet as sugar, and has a delicate taste. While one teaspoon of aga-ve has 21 calories—about the same calories as other sweeteners, like honey (21 calories) and table sugar (15 calo-ries)—its advantage is a lower glycemic index (GI). The lower the GI, the slower the body absorbs the carbohydrates in the sugar, which results in fewer spikes in blood sugar levels.
Sugars have varying antioxidant activity, which may be useful in reducing oxidative damage that leads to chronic diseases. Among the sugars tested, blackstrap molasses has the highest antioxidant activity; brown sugar, maple syrup and honey show moderate activity, and agave nectar come in at the bottom, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The bottom line is that agave nectar is no healthier than sugar or honey, and all added sugars should be limited in the diet.
—Diana Cullum-Dugan, RD