The Sad Claims about Agave Nectar

During the past five year of practice, I’ve recommended agave nectar as the sweetener of choice, having learned of its low glycemic index and therefore, its benefits over table sugar, commercial honey and of course, high fructose corn syrup  HFCS). This product of this noble Mexican cactus, famed for it’s fermented beverage, tequilla, has since then, replaced sugar, maple syrup and honey in many pantries across the country.

September 2007, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico – Happy to be amongst agave plants at a local tequila factory.

Though it’s been known for quite some time, I stumbled upon the claims that agave is worse for us than high fructose corn syrup only recently. Earlier this year, an employee of an agave manufacturing company clarified to me that raw agave was actually heated. This nugget of information started my research on the agave debate. I knew that “raw” honey is almost always heated unless the label clearly states that it isn’t heated so I had to know…. how does agave nectar end up on our shelves?

I shared in a previous post about the annual trade show I attend, where each year, a few products seem to dominate the natural product industry. Well, this year, one of them was agave. I saw brands of this sweetener that I’ve never seen before which can only mean one thing: increased demand and increased profitability. (Mercola’s post last year outlines this attractive and tasty sweetener and it’s marketability.)

So, what is agave nectar? According to this article on the Weston A. Price Foundation’s site, “Agave “nectar” is not made from the sap of the yucca or agave plant but from the starch of the giant pineapple-like, root bulb. The principal constituent of the agave root is starch, similar to the starch in corn or rice, and a complex carbohydrate called inulin, which is made up of chains of fructose molecules.Technically a highly indigestible fiber, inulin, which does not taste sweet, comprises about
half of the carbohydrate content of agave.

“The process by which agave glucose and inulin are converted into “nectar” is similar to the process by which corn starch is converted into HFCS. The agave starch is subject to an enzymatic and chemical process that converts the starch into a fructose-rich syrup—anywhere from 70 percent fructose and higher according to the agave nectar chemical profiles posted on agave nectar websites.”

High Fructose Corn Syrup?!?!

Yes, HFCS.

“They are indeed made the same way, using a highly chemical process with genetically modified enzymes. They are also using caustic acids, clarifiers, filtration chemicals and so forth in the conversion of agave starches into highly refined fructose inulin that is even higher in fructose content than high fructose corn syrup.” [source]

What’s the deal with Fructose?

Fructose is the sugar found in fruit and it is not ‘bad’. However, fructose isn’t found alone in nature but rather accompanied by fiber, minerals and enzymes. Neither is fructose meant to be consumed in large quantities as our bodies are fueled by glucose. When extracted and refined or synthesized via chemicals, fructose can be very harmful because it promotes fat production and storage and inhibits a hormone called leptin, that gives you the feeling of fullness after meals. In other words, this sugar doesn’t spike your sugar because it turns to fat!

Are all agave nectar products created equally?

Just with anything else, no. Some producers do heat it at very low temperatures without the use of synthetic chemicals so the final product is lower in fructose (about 50%). I ‘test’ all the products that I use and recommended for quality but there are differences in quality in different batches from the same producer. [source]

So which sweetener should you use?

If you want to restrict caloric intake, stevia is the best choice. However, many do not like the flavor of stevia. It has a similar
aftertaste to aspartame, so I find that people who enjoy the sweetness in diet sodas, don’t mind stevia.  However, stevia’s usage is limited as you can put it in your tea or lemonade but you cannot cook with it.

So I went back to my raw turbinado sugar. I usually buy a package for Thanksgiving dinner and it lasts me all year. Raw unheated honey is also a great option. For salad dressings and sauces, I normally throw in a piece of apple or pear to add sweetness.

Xylitol is another great option but it is a sugar alcohol so people who have problems with bloating or intestinal gas, should avoid it as it may aggravate the condition. (It is a great ingredient to look for in toothpaste!)

Remember, with any sweetener, it’s about quantity. If you normally don’t use more than a teaspoon or so a day, you shouldn’t worry. And if you normally do eat more than that everyday, or binge every so often, you should lower your intake.