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Everyone in my house has a sweet tooth and I like to bake. In my cupboard or fridge, I have granulated sugar, brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar (also called caster and 10-x sugar), honey, molasses, sweetened condensed milk, dark and light Karo corn syrup and maple syrup. I mostly have these sugars around for baking because I don’t add sugar to my tea, hot cereals or grapefruit. Consequently, the sugar bowls that have accumulated as gifts never get much attention. (My husband and I have also never been much for diet sodas and artificial sweeteners. I can taste them in a soft drink or yogurt a mile away. I have not had to give up sugar yet but have relatives who have, and will have to circle back to do another assessment of stevia and splenda and the rest.) The corn syrup goes in pecan pie and some candy, fudge and frosting recipes – all things I don’t make very often – and I need the molasses around for gingerbread. It’s nice to have a range on hand so that I can make baked goods when the urge strikes me, especially since BigAg processed cookies and snack cakes are so unabashedly full of unhealthy sugar combos and constructs. It’s going to break my daughter’s heart when I try to break up her love affair with Oreo cakesters, but the more I study the problem the more I understand that if you love someone you should not let them eat these new-fangled chemically enhanced cookie-things.

Though I know people who are enthusiastic about it, I have not yet bought Blue Agave Syrup. Since seeing it at a tasting booth at Costco, I thought, since I have not been snubbing it intentionally, I ought to do a little research. I’m almost sorry I did. I embarked fecklessly into the eye of quite an online brouhaha. I wound up in deeper than the girl that kicked the hornet’s next, more perplexed than I’d been standing in front of the honey jars in the grocery aisle. Quite a debate has been swirling out there for several years, and with the internet, it’s hard to scrub away toxic misinformation and persistent slam campaigns. The most maligning-to-Blue-Agave article, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mercola/agave-this-sweetener-is-f_b_537936.html]  is by a Dr. Mercola, is the highest one in the search engines and therefore the one I read first and was taken in in by its persuasive prose.  He attacks Blue Agave quite thoroughly, but not scientifically soundly, accurately or honestly. I had to confirm my sneaking feeling that he came off as too angry at Agave, and so went wading further into posts trying to settle the so-called Great Blue Agave Debate (try this one by Better World Blog or this one by Dr. Andrew Weil) and debunk Mercola line by line, picking apart his arguments and laying down more science and diagrams of various sugar molecules. Uncle.

So naturally, in the midst of all this, I started resenting Blue Agave itself for slowing me up in my mission to get a blog post out; but with further reading I will say that I can offer other links that let Blue Agave out of jail. It’s no worse than other sweeteners that we shouldn’t overuse and abuse. We should just try to buy the good stuff – that is, ones that tout their wholeness and lack of fillers as ingredients. Since I haven’t tried it yet myself, I can’t speak to which brands are best.

Harry Houdini’s image is emblazoned on street banners and city buses at the moment to tout an exhibit currently at the Jewish Contemporary Museum. Houdini gave himself a very Italian name to promote himself deciding, I suppose, that an Italian persona was a better seller than an Austro-Hungarian Jewish one. Houdini was the son of a rabbi. I bring this up to say that it is a good reminder that labels are usually made to help the labeler more than to help us poor schnooks making judgments based upon that label.

Buying honey is one such tricky arena of labeling smoke and mirrors. I’ve been wanting to replace my big squeeze bottle of honey since reading about honey laundering – honey imported into the US with sub-par or even toxic additives stripped of its pollen through a filtration process to cover its tracks – but I was too indecisive in the specialty market last week to bring a new jar home. (To read more about honey laundering click through to this November article from The Los Angeles Times.)

With about thirty different brands to choose from, I felt fairly silly hemming and hawing in the grocery aisle.  I really wanted to buy a jar of honey I could rely on for being pure and unadulterated and a 100% US/Local product. But when I checked the fine print, the brands that were labeled organic got their honey from India or Brazil, and the ones that said they were 100% U.S. didn’t provide any assurances about quality and safety practices. What I was really hoping for was a little booklet tied around the neck of the jar with a Cabbage Patch Doll-like pedigree booklet, naming the hive’s hometown or showing a pastoral photo of the crook of the tree where these alleged American honeybees lived. Several of the more tempting jars also had chunks of honeycomb floating around in them, but I didn’t know what to make of that and assumed that was out of my league and not a frippery that would be sustainable for the household budget. I figured some thirteen dollar jar of honey with a comb floating in it would probably last a lot less time. So, I went home empty handed and perplexed that day and strengthened my resolve to speed up the timetable for paying a visit to the Marin Sunday Farmer’s Market where  I would have the opportunity to buy a local produced jar. Visit more farmer’s markets…one of my resolutions of 2012?

It’s also a tempting idea to drive out to the Mission to Her Majesty’s Secret Beekeeper to check out America’s only urban beekeeper supply store. I can at least buy some pedigreed honey there, though it doesn’t feel terribly local/ecological to drive thirty minutes for a jar of honey. Our former neighbor who moved further out in the Richmond invited me to see her backyard urban hive, though in the winter time they are less busy as busy bees go. It felt like a good introduction for me to see them when I didn’t have to put on a special suit and the like and I will probably go back in the spring. It seems like setting up a hive is something of a ecological public service, as it’s been reported that the world is dangerously short of bees, but it sounds like a lot of work and it seems bees are pretty fragile and susceptible to being wiped out by passing diseases fairly easily.  There are many bee keeping clubs in the Bay Area and apparently there is a very ardent community of urban beekeepers in NYC.

Meanwhile, I caution us all not to believe everything we read, but to read a range of things to get a sense of reality vs. the sales illusion designed to sell us something that is not quite what it appears to be. And I want to remind us to ask ourselves as we scan many labels proclaiming something as a ‘Product of the U.S.’ why would there be a distributor and a foreign address from Australia/India/Denmark/fill in the blank for a U.S. product? Now that I’ve made something of a game out of looking for this sort of discrepancy, I’ve found it on labels for honey, jams, marinated veggies, and packages of natural meat. I’m sure there are legitimate rules that allow products to claim their American citizenship, but I can only handle one controversial issue at a time so I will have to ask you to take a rain check on that one.

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