I recently posted about Princeton University’s latest research confirming what we assumed along, that High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) makes you fat. But long before that study was published, people who questioned HFCS’s health benefit, have been flocking to the natural foods aisles at the grocery store to grab agave nectar as their alternative sweetener.
But how healthy is agave, really? Is it safe? How does something that tastes that good and sweet be good for you? I always wondered that. So, I did some digging. It turns out that it is NOT good for you. Surprise! In some cases, agave is nothing but a glorified fructose syrup because some agave nectar contains between 55% to 90% fructose – that’s higher than the amount of fructose in HFCS!!
What is Agave?
Agaves grow primarily in Mexico, South America, the southern and western United States. Agaves are succulents of the yucca family, more closely related to amaryllis and other lilies. Edible parts of the agave are the flowers, leaves, stalks and the sap. Agave looks like a giant Aloe Vera plant and has a bluish hue. A mature agave can grow to be 7 to 12 feet in diameter with leaves that are 5 to 8 feet tall and there are over 100 species in a wide variety of sizes and colors.
According to Dr. Joseph Mercola’s Natural Health Website, “In spite of manufacturer’s claims that their agave nectar is straight from the sap of the plant, most agave “nectar” is not made from the sap of the yucca or agave plant but from its pineapple-like root bulb. The root has a complex carbohydrate called inulin, which is made up of fructose molecules. The process which many agave producers use to convert this inulin into “nectar” is very similar to the process by which cornstarch is converted into HFCS.
“Though processing methods can differ among manufacturers, most commercially available agave is converted into fructose-rich syrup using genetically modified enzymes and a chemically intensive process involving caustic acids, clarifiers, and filtration chemicals. Here is a partial list of the chemicals many producers use:
Cationic and ionic resins
Sulfuric and/or hydrofluoric acid
Do these chemicals look natural to you? Not to me. But most agave nectars are marketed as being “100% Natural”, “raw” and from “Agave’s sap.” They also state how agave has been used as natural sweetener for thousands of years in Mexico. That might have been true but not as the bottled nectar form that we buy from the natural food stores. One agave seller explains, “Agave nectar is a newly created sweetener, having been developed during the 1990’s.”
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.” 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.” (westonaprice.org)
But do you think Agave would sell if it was labeled “High Fructose Agave Syrup”? I think not.
Another problem I see with agave is that chemicals called saponins are found in many varieties of agave plants. According to Sally Fallon Morell and Rami Nagel, “The saponins are toxic steroid derivatives, capable of disrupting red blood cells, producing diarrhea and vomiting, and they might cause or contribute to miscarriage by stimulating blood flow to the uterus. At the very least, agave products should carry a warning label indicating that the product may cause a miscarriage.”
Low Glycemic Index?
“While high fructose agave syrup may or may not spike your blood glucose levels because it has a low glycemic index, 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. Agave’s fructose content can range from 55% up to 90%, depending on the processing method used. Agave nectar with 55% fructose is about the same as high fructose corn syrup so there would be no benefit in agave at 55% fructose over sugar. Furthermore, Agave and sugar have approximately the same number of calories….about 16 per teaspoon. So, agave being low glycemic index food doesn’t mean that it’s good for diabetics either.” – Rami Nagel
So, now you know.
“Some new sweeteners like agave syrup were introduced into the market to make a profit, not to make consumers healthy. Clever marketing has led many consumers to believe that agave syrup is 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. If a sweetener contains manufactured fructose, through chemical process as in HFCS and agave, it is neither safe, nor natural…especially if the fructose level is over 55%.” – Sally Fallon Morell and Rami Nagel
If you want something that’s naturally sweet, your best bet is to have 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, like locally produced raw honey or local organic maple syrup.
I know how you feel. You are wondering, “What will I use in my morning java?” I used to use agave nectar for my coffee in the morning myself since I stopped using all forms of sugar. Now I have to get used to the taste of honey in my coffee. It’s an acquired taste but I guess it’s better than ingesting all that chemicals from agave.
When she is not co-leading Team EcoEtsy, Karen Lee blogs about eco-living and tips on her blog, ecokaren (www.ecokaren.com) and sells her eco-goodies on Etsy (http://ecokaren.etsy.com), in that order. Karen is a chiropractor who found correlation between health and living green while in practice and currently tries to reach out to as many people as she can about the importance of living green.