It’s easy to understand how agave syrup got its great reputation. Even the word “Agave” has a fine pedigree, coming from the Greek word for noble. The blue agave species- considered the best for the making agave nectar- flourishes in rich volcanic soil— (it’s also the only variety permitted to be used for the making of tequila). And extracts from the agave plant have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. (Unfortunately there’s zero evidence that any of those compounds are present in the commercially made syrup.)
Agave nectar is an amber-colored liquid that pours more easily than honey and is considerably sweeter than sugar. The health-food crowd loves it because it is gluten-free and suitable for vegan diets- and, most especially, because it’s low glycemic (we’ll get to that in a moment). Largely because of its very low glycemic impact, Agave nectar is marketed as “diabetic friendly”. What’s not to like?
As it turns out, quite a lot.
Agave nectar has a low-glycemic index for one reason only: it’s largely made of fructose, which although it has a low-glycemic index, is now known to be a very damaging form of sugar when used as a sweetener. Agave nectar has the highest fructose content of any commercial sweetener (with the exception of pure liquid fructose).
All sugar- from table sugar to HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) to honey- contains some mixture of fructose and glucose. Table sugar is 50/50, HFCS is 55/45. Agave nectar is a whopping 90% fructose, almost- but not quite- twice as high as HFCS.
Fructose- the sugar found naturally in fruit- is perfectly finewhen you get it from whole foods like apples (about 7% fructose)—it comes with a host of vitamins, antioxidants and fiber. But when it’s commercially extracted from fruit, concentrated and made into a sweetner, it exacts a considerable metabolic price.
Research shows that it’s the fructose part of sweeteners that’s the most dangerous. Fructose causes insulin resisitance and significantly raises triglycerides (a risk factor for heart disease). It also increases fat around the middle which in turn puts you at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and Metabolic Syndrome (a kind of pre-diabetes) .
And fructose has been linked to non-alcoholic fatty-liver disease. Rats given high fructose diets develop a number of undesirable metabolic abnormalities including elevated triglycerides, weight gain and extra abdominal fat.
In the agave plant, most of the sweetness comes from a particular kind of fructose called inulin that actually has some health benefits- it’s considered a fiber. But there’s not much inulin left in the actual syrup. In the manufacturing process, enzymes are added to the inulin to break it down into digestible sugar (fructose), resulting in a syrup that has a fructose content that is at best 57% and- much more commonly- as high as 90%.
“”It’s almost all fructose, highly processed sugar with great marketing,” said Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “Fructose interferes with healthy metabolism when (consumed) at higher doses”, she told me. “Many people have fructose intolerance like lactose intolerance. They get acne or worse diabetes symptoms even though their blood [sugar] is OK”.
Agave nectar syrup is a triumph of marketing over science. True, it has a low-glycemic index, but so does gasoline- that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
If you simply must have some sweets once in a while, a small amount of agave nectar every once in a while isn’t going to kill you. Just don’t buy into the idea that it’s any better for you than plain old sugar or HFCS.
In some ways, it may even be slightly worse.
What is the “Real” Truth about Agave?
If you knew the truth about what’s really in it, you’d be dumping it down the drain — and that would certainly be bad for sales.
Most agave “nectar” or agave “syrup” is nothing more than a laboratory-generated super-condensed fructose syrup, devoid of virtually all nutrient value, and offering you metabolic misfortune in its place.
Unfortunately, masterful marketing has resulted in the astronomical popularity of agave syrup among people who believe they are doing their health a favor by avoiding refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup, and dangerous artificial sweeteners.
And if you’re diabetic, you’ve been especially targeted and told this is simply the best thing for you since locally grown organic lettuce, that it’s “diabetic friendly,” has a “low glycemic index” and doesn’t spike your blood sugar.
While agave syrup does have a low-glycemic index, so does antifreeze — that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.Most agave syrup has a higher fructose content than any commercial sweetener — ranging from 70 to 97 percent, depending on the brand, which is FAR HIGHER than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which averages 55 percent.
This makes agave actually WORSE than HFCS.
It is important to understand that fructose does not increase insulin levels, which is not necessarily good as what it does do is radically increase insulin resistance, which is FAR more dangerous. You see, it’s okay for your insulin levels to rise, that is normal. You just don’t want these insulin levels to remain elevated, which is what insulin resistance causes.
That is why fasting insulin is such a powerful test, as it is a very powerful reflection of your insulin resistance.
In addition to insulin resistance, your risk of liver damage increases, along with triglycerides and a whole host of other health problems, as discussed in this CBC News video about the newly discovered dangers of high fructose corn syrup. The study discussed in this news report is about HFCS, however, it’s well worth remembering that agave contains MORE fructose than HFCS, and in all likelihood, it’s the FRUCTOSE that is causing these severe liver problems.
Is There Really a “Safe” Organic Agave?
Part of the problem leading to the confusion is that there are some natural food companies that are indeed committed to excellence and in providing the best product possible. But let me assure you that in the agave industry, this is the minority of companies.
Nevertheless, these ethical companies seek to provide an outstanding product. There are a few companies who commit to and actually achieve these criteria and actually:
- Work with the indigenous people,
- Use organic agave as the raw material, free of pesticides
- Process it at low temperatures to preserve all the natural enzymes
- Produce a final agave product that is closer to 50% fructose instead of over 90%
- Fructose is bonded or conjugated to other sugars and not floating around as “free” fructose, like HFCS, which is far more damaging.
The VAST majority of companies however do not apply these principles and essentially produce a product that is, as this articles states, FAR worse than HFCS.
If you are going to use agave you will certainly want to seek out one of the companies that adhere to the principles above. However you will still need to exert caution in using it.
Just like fruit it is quantity issue. Fructose only becomes a metabolic poison when you consume it in quantities greater than 25 grams a day. If you consume one of the typical agave preparations that is one tablespoon, assuming you consume ZERO additional fructose in your diet, which is VERY unlikely since the average person consumes 70 grams per day.
Even a hundred years ago, long prior to modern day food processing, the average person consumed 15 grams a day.
Another great article from Dr. Mercola…
by Dr. Mercola
The popularity of agave syrup, also called agave nectar, is on a meteoric rise — thanks in large part to clever marketing which positions the product as a healthy alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Agave is also heavily promoted as a low glycemic food, enticing diabetics.
I’ll discuss just how “healthy” agave is in a minute.
The Amazing Power of Marketing
In case you doubt the influence of marketing in setting trends and consumer buying habits, look at these statistics:
- Agave products more than tripled in number between 2003 and 2007.
- McCormick & Co., a major food manufacturer, placed agave syrup in its “top 10 flavors” list for 2009.
Agave can now be found in prepared tea, energy and “health” drinks, nutrition bars, desserts, and other food items typically found in health food stores.
Agave is also quickly crossing over from the health food market to mainstream grocery chains, and consumers (especially vegans and raw food enthusiasts) are buying up bottles of the stuff to use in place of other sweeteners, like honey.
Why Agave Syrup is the Hottest New Trend in Sugar Alternatives
Taste – Agave has a subtle, delicate flavor many people enjoy.
Sweetness – Agave syrup can be up to three times as sweet as table sugar, so it takes less to sweeten a food or beverage.
Public perception – Highly effective agave product marketing campaigns have persuaded consumers the sweetener is a healthy alternative to sugar. As more and more people veer away from deadly artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup (but not from their sugar addiction, unfortunately), they are on the hunt for safer, healthier alternatives.
About the Agave Plant
Agaves grow primarily in Mexico, but you can also find them in the southern and western United States, as well as in South America. Previously, it was most commonly known as a primary ingredient of tequila. Agaves are not cacti, but are actually related to the lily and amaryllis families of plants.
There are over 100 species of agave plants, in a wide variety of sizes and colors.
Edible parts of the agave are the flowers, leaves, stalks and the sap. It is the sap of the plant that is used to make agave syrup.
Commercially available agave syrup or nectar is thought to be produced primarily from blue agave plants grown in Southern Mexico. This is because the blue agave has a high carbohydrate content, which results in a high concentration of fructose in the final product.
Harvesting the Sap
When an agave plant is about seven to 10 years old, the leaves are removed to expose the core, or pina, of the plant. The harvested pina looks like a large pineapple and can weigh anywhere from 50 to 150 pounds.
Sap is removed from the pina, filtered, and heated to break down the carbohydrates into sugars.
The same agave plant produces all three varieties of commercially sold syrup, depending on the amount of heat used in processing. These varieties include:
- Raw (color is similar to maple syrup and flavor is similar to caramel)
- Light (lighter color and flavor than raw)
- Amber (similar in color and flavor to raw)
Many varieties of agave nectar are processed at relatively low temperatures (below 118°F) and are marketed as a “raw” food.
The Myth of Agave as a “Healthy” Sugar Substitute
- Agave syrup is neither a natural food nor organic
Fully chemically processed sap from the agave plant is known as hydrolyzed high fructose inulin syrup.
According to Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health:
“[Agave is] almost all fructose, highly processed sugar with great marketing.”
- Agave syrup is not low calorie.
Agave syrup is about 16 calories per teaspoon, the same as table sugar.
- Agave syrup may not have a low glycemic index.
Depending upon where the agave comes from and the amount of heat used to process it, your agave syrup can be anywhere from 55 percent to 90 percent fructose! (And it’s likely you won’t be able to tell from the product label.)
This range of fructose content hardly makes agave syrup a logical choice if you’re hoping to avoid the high levels of fructose in HFCS (high fructose corn syrup).
And if you’re diabetic, you should know that the alleged benefit of agave for diabetics is purely speculative. Very few agave studies have been documented, and most involved rats. There have been no clinical studies done on its safety for diabetics.
Since most agave syrup has such a high percentage of fructose, your blood sugar will likely spike just as it would if you were consuming regular sugar or HFCS, and you would also run the risk of raising your triglyceride levels. It’s also important to understand that whereas the glucose in other sugars are converted to blood glucose, fructose is a relatively unregulated source of fuel that your liver converts to fat and cholesterol.
A significant danger here is that fructose does not stimulate your insulin secretion, nor enhance leptin production, which is thought to be involved in appetite regulation. (This was detailed in one of the most thorough scientific analyses published to date on this topic.)
Because insulin and leptin act as key signals in regulating how much food you eat, as well as your body weight, dietary fructose can also contribute to increased food intake and weight gain.
Therefore, if you need to lose weight, fructose is one type of sugar you’ll definitely want to avoid, no matter what the source is.
Other Dangers of Fructose
In addition, consuming high amounts of concentrated fructose may cause health problems ranging from mineral depletion, to insulin resistance, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and even miscarriage in pregnant women.
Fructose may also interfere with your body’s ability to metabolize copper. This can result in depletion of collagen and elastin, which are vital connective tissues. A copper deficiency can also result in anemia, fragile bones, defects in your arteries, infertility, high cholesterol and heart disease, and uncontrolled blood sugar levels.
Additionally, fructose consumption has been shown to significantly increase uric acid. Elevated levels of uric acid are markers for heart disease. It has also been shown to increase blood lactic acid, especially in diabetics. Elevations in lactic acid can result in metabolic acidosis.
Isolated fructose has no enzymes, vitamins or minerals and can rob your body of these nutrients in order to assimilate itself. Hence, consumption of fructose can also lead to loss of vital minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc.
Other Reasons You Should Steer Clear of Agave
- There are very few quality controls in place to monitor the production of agave syrup. Nearly all agave sold in the U.S. comes from Mexico. Industry insiders are concerned agave distributors are using lesser, even toxic, agave plants due to a shortage of blue agave.There are also concerns that some distributors are cutting agave syrup with corn syrup — how often and to what extent is anyone’s guess. In addition, the FDA has refused shipments of agave syrup due to excessive pesticide residues.
- Agave syrup is not a whole food — it is fractionated and processed. The sap is separated from the plant and treated with heat, similar to how maple sap is made into maple syrup. Agave nectar is devoid of many of the nutrients contained in the original, whole plant.
- Agave syrup is not a live food. The natural enzymes are removed to prevent agave syrup from fermenting and turning into tequila in your food pantry or cabinet.
- Agave is, for all intents and purposes, highly concentrated sugar. Sugar and sweeteners wreak havoc on your health and are highly addictive.
The Case Against Sugar
No matter your nutritional type, sugar is not good for you. Certainly you can tolerate small amounts if you are healthy and the majority of your diet is healthy, but let’s face it the average American is consuming over 150 pounds a year of sugar or nearly half a pound a day. Ideally your annual consumption should be well under ten pounds per YEAR.
Sugar increases your insulin and leptin levels and decreases receptor sensitivity of both these hormones. This can lead to a wide range of health problems, including weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, premature aging, and heart disease.
Sugar suppresses your immune system, causing problems with allergies and digestive disorders. It can even bring on depression.
For a comprehensive list of the dangers of sugar to your body, read 76 ways sugar can destroy your health now.
Worse Than Any Sugar: Artificial Sweeteners
The worst of all possible choices are artificial sweeteners. They are, without question, far more damaging to your health than regular sugar.
While I don’t recommend it, consuming sugar in moderation isn’t likely to cause serious health problems. Moderation in this case is five pounds or less per year, which is a far cry from the 150 pounds per year consumed by the majority of Americans.
If you’re interested in kicking your sugar addiction, I highly recommend trying a meridian tapping technique called Turbo Tapping, which has helped thousands of people kick their sugar and soda habits.
Have You Tried Stevia?
If you’re determined to sweeten your foods and beverages, I urge you to consider using stevia. Stevia is a sweet herb, safe and natural. It is much sweeter than sugar, but has no calories. It is my personal choice of sweetener.
In the U.S., you’ll find stevia not in the sweetener aisle of your local grocery, but in the supplement section. It can be used in appetizers, beverages, soups, salads, vegetables, desserts — just about anything.
If you’ve tried stevia and were bothered by an aftertaste, it could be the way the plant was processed. You should try a few different brands until you find one that tastes good.
However, if you have insulin issues, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or if you’re overweight, I suggest you avoid all sweeteners, including stevia, since any sweetener can decrease your insulin sensitivity.
- For everyone else, my recommendation is to:
- Eliminate all artificial sweeteners
- Avoid agave
- Limit sugar
- Use raw, organic honey in moderation
- Use regular stevia in moderation, but avoid stevia-based sweeteners like Truvia and PureVia