No Sweeteners for You, and that Includes Agave!
We get asked about every new sweetener put out by the purveyors of unhealthy sweetness. Agave nectar or syrup is the most recent. Put a gun to our heads and we’ll tell you not to eat it. Actually, we’ll do that without the pistol and dramatics. We’re quite consistent that way.
Whole foods have fiber, vitamins, and nutrients that enrich the body and in some cases slow down the sugar hit that comes from glucose and fructose. When a naturally sugary food like an apple or a generous hunk of agave cactus is processed into a syrup or nectar, everything good about the whole food is lost in the production vat.
In the specific case of agave, the debate comes down to whether glucose or fructose is more harmful to the body. Natural agave, the plant from which tequila is derived, is approximately half and half glucose to fructose. The nectar or syrup appears primarily to be all fructose, according to published statistics from agave distributors.
Now, is fructose better for you than glucose or sucrose? If you listen to the fructose manufacturers and some diabetes experts, then yes, fructose is better for you. Fructose doesn’t raise glucose levels in the bloodstream, which means there is less of an insulin response and a consequent benefit to diabetics because insulin Agave Plant management is the name of the game.
But is spiking up on fructose any better for anyone whether diabetic or not? We say No! And we’re not alone. Fructose has been linked to raised triglycerides, fatty liver disease, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and more belly fat, which can all be collected together as Metabolic Syndrome.
Agave seems to have other drawbacks as well. The first one that sets our teeth on edge is the fact that agave nectar you buy might not actually be agave nectar.
According to the Chicago Tribune, products labeled as being from the blue agave plant …may in fact be mostly corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup. may, in fact, be mostly corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup. Tequila manufacturers get first call on the expensive blue agave cactus that grows in Mexico. There are strict requirements for tequila to come from the blue agave in the same way the German Beer Purity Law says beer must be made from wheat or barley, hops, water, and fermenting yeast. So, when supply did not meet demand, some nectar producers cut what agave they had with similar corn-based fructose.
“Agave is really chemically refined hydrolyzed high-fructose syrup and not from the blue agave plant, organic or raw, asclaimed,” says Russ Bianchi, a food and beverage formulator.
So far the Food and Drug Administration sees no reason to regulate agave for any safety concerns, but admits that agave products may have been “economically adulterated and misbranded by adding corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup.”
The Chicago Tribune also reports some less well-documented effects of agave nectar consumption that may be a concern. Apparently, some agave products and other sweeteners may have botulism spores and thus shouldn’t be given to small children. There are assertions that agave may cause miscarriages and/or other harm to pregnant or lactating mothers, and agave, like many other sugary products, has also been linked to increased acne.
Agave does have some possible health benefits touted by its proponents. As stated, glucose levels aren’t raised. Agave is loaded with inulin, a complex sub-variant of fructose, which is broken down by friendly bacteria to make fatty acids that may fight colon cancer. Additionally, agave may have some anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. But, these effects are hotly debated.
“It’s almost all fructose, highly processed sugar with great marketing,” says Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt of the American College of Nutrition and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “Fructose interferes with healthy metabolism when taken at higher doses. Many people have fructose intolerance like lactose intolerance. They get acne or worse diabetes symptoms even though blood glucose is OK.”
Even some agave proponents like Dave Grotto, a Registered Dietician and author of101 Foods that Could Save Your Life, will admit that “excess consumption of any sweetener is not wise. But, honey and agave are value-added sweeteners, if used moderately.”
If the best the pro-agave people can come up with for their product is “use in moderation,” we should translate that statement into “avoid as much as possible.” If sugar, fructose, honey, agave, and other sweeteners can lead to addiction, then how is the average person to know what in moderation actually means? How much is too much before a small dose of agave that may help with cancer and inflammation becomes a mainline hit of fructose to the bloodstream and liver?
Limit yourself to less than two teaspoons a day for any refined sweetener to avoid the many related health effects. We live in the same world you do, and we understand about occasionally falling off the wagon. But remember that any sweetener removed from its natural state is a refined sweetener that should be avoided as much as possible. Agave is no different. Now you know.