The Truth about Agave

Sugar has been a dietary topic of interest as more and more research links it to obesity and Type II Diabetes. Over the years, alternative sweeteners have become popular, both natural and artificial. Consumers are beginning to become more aware of the chemical content of artificial sweeteners such as Equal and Splenda, so they turn to plant-based sweeteners such as Agave nectar. It’s often claimed to be natural, raw, and a diabetic-friendly sweetener, yet it is none of these.

What is Agave?

Agave is a sweetener found as a syrup or in various foods that is used in place of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or table sugar. It comes from the agave plant, which grows natively in the southern United States, Central and South America, and is commonly associated with Mexico. In the past, Mexicans used to boil the sap from the plant to produce a sweetener known as “miel de agave.” It was most commonly used to produce the alcoholic beverage tequila by fermenting the sugars in the plant [1]. You can find agave nectar on the shelves of grocery stores with labels such as: “Agave Nectar 100% Natural Sweetener” and “Organic Raw Blue Agave Nectar”. It can also be found in foods labeled as organic or raw, including ketchup, ice cream, chocolate, and health food bars [2].

Agave’s hidden secret…

The fluid from the agave plant is high in sugar but also contains fructans, which are linked to beneficial effects on metabolism and insulin [1]. But despite manufacturers’ claims, the Agave nectar found in stores and in our food products is not made from the sap of the plant, but instead from the starch of the plant’s root bulb [2]. The agave root consists of starch and the highly indigestible complex carbohydrate inulin, which is made up of chains of fructose molecules [2]. These sugars are treated with heat and enzymes (similar process as HFCS), which destroys all the health benefits of the agave plant and results in a highly refined sweetener that actually contains more fructose than HFCS [2].

How does this affect our health?

Because of the high fructose and low glucose content in agave syrup, it has a very low glycemic index (GI), unlike glucose. This means that it does not spike blood sugar or insulin levels, which is why it is often marketed as “healthy” or “diabetic friendly”.

But the harmful effects of agave are not related to the glycemic index, which is commonly linked with inflammation, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and type II diabetes. Instead, it is the extremely large fructose content that negatively impacts our health. A high consumption of fructose can cause mineral depletion, liver inflammation, hardening of the arteries, insulin resistance leading to diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and obesity [2].

A double-blinded study conducted in 2009 by Stanhope, Kimber L. et al. revealed that overweight and obese subjects who consumed fructose-sweetened beverages vs. glucose-sweetened had increased visceral adiposity, decreased insulin sensitivity, promoted dyslipidemia, and increased hepatic de novo lipogenesis (DNL) also known as fatty liver [5]. The liver is the only organ that can metabolize fructose in large amounts, so a high consumption leads to an overworked liver that turns the fructose into fat, thus explaining fatty liver [2].

So, which sweetener should you use?

If you’re craving something sweet, opt for fresh whole fruit. While fruit does contain fructose, that fructose is a part of a complex that includes fiber, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, which allows it to be processed in the body differently than free fructose found in agave.

For cooking and baking, coconut sugar or nectar, fresh apple sauce, orange juice, dates/date sugar are true natural options.

The U.S. food supply sneaks in sugar any way they can so it is up to the consumers to read labels, ask questions, learn from credible sources, and make informed choices to consume more whole and unrefined foods and sweeteners. Overall, any added sugars should be avoided as they contribute to additional calories with no nutritional benefit [4].

Written by Tess, H. Bastyr student intern

Resources

  1. Leech, J. “Agave Nectar: A Sweetener That is Even Worse Than Sugar”. Authority Nutrition. June 9, 2017. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-turmeric#section1
  2. Fallon, S. & Enig, M. “Agave Nectar: Worse Than We Thought”. The Weston A. Price Foundation. May 1, 2009. https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/modern-foods/agave-nectar-worse-than-we-thought/
  3. Tenderich, A. “Agave Syrup and Diabetes: New Things to Know”. Diabetes Mine. March 18, 2016. https://www.healthline.com/diabetesmine/the-skinny-on-agave-syrup#1
  4. Sugar 101. 30 May 2017. www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Sugar-101_UCM_306024_Article.jsp.
  5. Stanhope, K. L., Schwarz, J. M., Keim, N. L., Griffen, S. C., Bremer, A. A., Graham, J. L., … Havel, P. J. (2009). Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans. The Journal of Clinical Investigation, 119(5), 1322–1334. http://doi.org/10.1172/JCI37385

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