Is Agave Syrup Good Bad Or Just Kinda Tasty?

agave 01 Is Agave Syrup Good Bad Or Just Kinda Tasty? Photographer: V Blak (cc)

Light your torches, there’s a new witch hunt in the grocery store. The target? Agave syrup. After hitting the mainstream several years ago as the new “healthy sweetener of choice,” agave recently has been under fire with negative backlash all across the health-food spectrum, with many companies even considering pulling agave from their products due to the extent of customer concern.

But is agave really that bad? Can it be compared to high fructose corn syrup? Should we go out of our way to avoid it? Let’s take a look.

q question interview Is Agave Syrup Good Bad Or Just Kinda Tasty? What happened with agave?

a answer interview Is Agave Syrup Good Bad Or Just Kinda Tasty?It really wasn’t all that long ago that many people were just beginning to fall in love with agave – using it often in the place of cane sugar, corn syrup and honey for its intense and clean-tasting sweetness. Agave’s brief history in the North American marketplace has relied upon being marketed as a “raw healthy sweetener.” This sweet syrup extracted from the agave cactus proved especially valuable to the diabetic community, who embraced agave’s low glycemic index. Then, suddenly, agave was everywhere – in recipes, in drinks, in packaged foods, in restaurants, and of course, in desserts. Between a solid stamp of approval from the health food community, and a new excuse to get simply get some sugary goodness on, the mantra of healthy sweet food became “no sugar . . . just agave.”

Most of us understand that high fructose corn syrup is something we should avoid entirely.

So when the story broke that agave was actually not healthy at all and was actually comparable to corn syrup, it’s no wonder there was a strong outrage. After all, agave was sold to us as a “healthy sweetener,” and we were paying a premium price tag to enjoy its benefits. Health advocate Dr. Mercola released this adamant and influential article, which was posted and reposted in just about every health-oriented nook and cranny. Suddenly agave was the bad guy, leaving consumers feel betrayed . . . and confused.

agave 02 Is Agave Syrup Good Bad Or Just Kinda Tasty?

q question interview Is Agave Syrup Good Bad Or Just Kinda Tasty? Is agave really worse than high fructose corn syrup?

a answer interview Is Agave Syrup Good Bad Or Just Kinda Tasty?Most of us understand that high fructose corn syrup is something we should avoid entirely. And it’s true that both syrups have very high levels of fructose (the type of sugar that is primarily found in fruit), making the comparison understandable. But high fructose corn syrup is really quite bad – it’s a (mostly) genetically modified, highly processed product that often contains mercury. In comparison, agave is much a less processed product (depending on the source), not to mention free of toxic mercury. Plus, it’s also about twice as sweet as corn syrup – so even though ounce per ounce the fructose levels are the same, you can get away with using significantly less thereby reducing the total sugars.

Unfortunately, using half as much has not been in the game plan for most people. Initially influenced by that “healthy sweetener” tag, liberal use of agave became acceptable and even celebrated — we seemed to forget that at the end of the day, agave syrup is really just a highly concentrated liquid sugar. Clearly, agave was marked misleadingly as “healthy,” but at the same time many companies and individuals failed to use restraint when including it in foods. Sugars – fructose included – are not bad; we just don’t want an excess of them.

If there is one food philosophy that I connect with more than any other it is simply making better choices — which is where agave takes a seat in my kitchen. I find “better choice” agave exceptionally useful in some recipes because it is so efficiently sweet . . . but I avoid using it in large quantities, and try to get away with using as little as possible when formulating recipes. Often, I will use agave in conjunction with another healthier sweetener like stevia to help round out the sweetness, while allowing the other sweetener to do most of the legwork. For healthy culinary purposes, agave ranks amongst the lowest of the sweeteners. But that still doesn’t mean it’s bad — agave just has to be used more consciously then many of us have been accustomed to using it in the past.

q question interview Is Agave Syrup Good Bad Or Just Kinda Tasty?Alternative useful sweeteners for a healthy kitchen:

a answer interview Is Agave Syrup Good Bad Or Just Kinda Tasty?There’s no need to be as obsessively dependent on agave as we’ve become, because let’s face it — there’s a treasure trove of other healthy sweeteners which each bring their own unique benefits to the table. Fresh or dried fruit is always a first option sweetener because it has nutrients and fiber that it brings along for the sweet ride. But fruit simply doesn’t “work” in every recipe, which is why we’re so lucky to have variety. Here’s a short list of some other sweeteners I find particularly useful in making healthy, natural recipes:

Palm Sugar
Date Syrup/Sugar
Yacon Syrup/powder
Maple Syrup/Sugar
Jerusalem Artichoke Syrup

The Bottom Line
Agave is not what I would consider to be a “best choice” sweetener – that’s where fruit and stevia step in – but it is unquestionably still a “better choice” in comparison to refined cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup (which make up 99.9% of the sweetener choices that occur every day). As for the best choice in the pursuit of optimum health, perhaps simply maintaining a healthy perspective on the role of sugar in our diets is the most important and beneficial practice of all.

For further reading on why agave isn’t as bad as it seems, I highly recommend this detailed and well researched article: The “Agave Is Bad For You” Fallacy.

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  • V Blak

    I think we will start avoiding using agave in our recipes. It doesn’t really sound that great after reading about the processing details.

    Agave “Nectar” to the Rescue

    As the educated public has shied away from foods containing HFCS, the industry has brought a new sweetener on the scene, one used especially in foods aimed at the health-conscious consumer: agave “nectar.” Agave nectar is advertised as a “diabetic friendly,” raw, and “100% natural sweetener.” Yet it is none of these.
    Agave nectar is found on the shelves of health food stores primarily under the labels, “Agave Nectar 100% Natural Sweetener,” and “Organic Raw Blue Agave Nectar.” In addition, it can be found in foods labeled as organic or raw, including ketchup, ice cream, chocolate, and health food bars.
    The implication of its name, along with the pictures and descriptions on the product labels, creates the impression that agave is an unrefined sweetener that has been used for thousands of years by native people in central Mexico. “For thousands of years natives to central Mexico used different species of agave plants for medicine, as well as for building shelter.” Thus reads the copy on an agave package. And it is true that natives would also allow the sweet sap or liquid of one species of agave to ferment naturally, which created a mildly alcoholic beverage with a very pungent flavor known as pulque. They also made a traditional sweetener from the agave sap or juice called miel de agave by simply boiling it for several hours. But, as one agave seller explains, the agave nectar purchased in stores is neither of these traditional foods: “Agave nectar is a newly created sweetener, having been developed during the 1990’s.”33
    The Big Dirty Secret About Agave

    In spite of manufacturers’ claims, 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.34

    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.35 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. 36 (One agave manufacturer claims that his product is made with “natural” enzymes.) That’s right, the refined fructose in agave nectar is much more concentrated than the fructose in HFCS. For comparison, the high fructose corn syrup used in sodas is 55 percent refined fructose. (A natural agave product does exist in Mexico, a molasses type of syrup from concentrated plant nectar, but availability is limited and it is expensive to produce.)
    According to Bianchi, agave “nectar” and HFCS “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.” The result is a high level of highly refined fructose in the remaining syrup, along with some remaining inulin.
    In a confidential FDA letter, Dr. Martin Stutsman of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Labeling Enforcement, explains the FDA’s food labeling laws related to agave nectar: “Corn syrup treated with enzymes to enhance the fructose levels is to be labeled ‘High Fructose Corn Syrup.’” According to Mr. Stutsman, agave requires the label “hydrolyzed inulin syrup.”37 Even though, like corn, agave is a starch and fiber food processed with enzymes, it does not require the label “High Fructose Agave Syrup.” Agave “nectar” is a misnomer; at the very least, it should be labeled “agave syrup.”
    Agave syrup comes in two colors: clear or light, and amber. What is this difference? Mr. Bianchi explains: “Due to poor quality control in the agave processing plants in Mexico, sometimes the fructose gets burned after being heated above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, thus creating a darker, or amber color.” However, the labels create the impression of an artisan product—like light or amber beer. As consumers are learning about problems with agave syrup, the label “chicory syrup” is beginning to appear as a non-conforming word for the product. Consumer beware!
    The Saponin Problem

    Yucca species are known to contain large quantities of saponins. The industry describes saponins in agave syrup as beneficial: “Agave’s rich density of saponins increases hydration as the soapy, surfactant nature of saponins change the wetting angle of water it contacts. This eases and accelerates cellular water uptake, especially when used with a high-quality salt.”38
    However, the truth is that the saponins found in many varieties of agave plants are toxic steroid derivatives, capable of disrupting red blood cells and producing diarrhea and vomiting,39 to be avoided during pregnancy or breastfeeding because they might cause or contribute to miscarriage by stimulating blood flow to the uterus.40 At the very least, agave products should carry a warning label indicating that the product may cause a miscarriage.
    Just Say No to Agave

    Since the FDA makes no effort to enforce food-labeling laws, consumers cannot be certain that what they are eating is what the label says it is. New sweeteners like agave syrup were introduced into the market to make a profit, not to make consumers healthy. Clever marketing has led mane consumers to believe that the high level of fructose in agave syrup makes it a safe and a natural sweetener. Agave syrup labels do not conform to FDA labeling requirements, thus deepening the false illusion of an unprocessed product. As we have demonstrated here, if a sweetener contains manufactured fructose, it is neither safe, nor natural, especially at levels up to 70 percent.
    Agave syrup is a manmade sweetener which has been through a complicated chemical refining process of enzymatic digestion that converts the starch and fiber into the unbound, manmade chemical fructose. While high fructose agave syrup won’t spike your blood glucose levels, the fructose in it may cause mineral depletion, liver inflammation, hardening of the arteries, insulin resistance leading to diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
    If you want something sweet, eat a piece of fruit, not a candy bar labeled as a “health food.” If you want to create something sweet, use sweeteners that are known to be safer. For uncooked dishes, unheated raw honey or dates work well. For cooked dishes or sweet drinks, a good organic maple syrup, or even freshly juiced apple juice or orange juice can provide delicious and relatively safe sweetness; dehydrated cane sugar juice or maple sugar may be used in moderation in cookies and desserts that contain nutritious ingredients and good fats such as butter, egg yolks and nuts.
    However, to be healthy, we cannot eat sugar all day, no matter how natural the form. One should limit total sweetener consumption to less than five percent of daily calories. For a diet of 2500 calories per day, that’s less than three tablespoons of honey, maple syrup or dehydrated cane sugar juice, or several pieces of fruit. And many people do best by avoiding sweeteners completely.

    The lack of standards in the health food world comes as depressing news; but let this news encourage you to consume more pure and unrefined foods and sweetener sources. Good health depends on wise food choices, and wise food choices depend on constant vigilance.

  • V Blak

    Here is a video by the Renegade Health Show (… they talk about Agave causing a fatty liver over time. Really they say any high fructose sugar will cause this health issue. A fatty liver doesn’t filter as it should. (fatty liver:

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