Agave Nectar: The Bitter Truth About This “Natural” Sweetener
News and consumption of agave nectar in the U.S. was sparse until several years ago, when we suddenly became aware of its “health benefits,” and many health conscious individuals began using agave nectar as their natural sweetener of choice. However, conflicting information regarding the true health benefits and potential risks of agave nectar soon arose, leading to many confused consumers.
Agave nectar is derived primarily from the blue agave plant, agave tequilana, which grows in Mexico. Although there are over 100 species of agave plants, all of which grow in Mexico, and many of which are used to make alcoholic beverages like tequila and mezcal, the blue agave is the one most often used as a natural sweetener. The reason for this is that it has an extremely high carbohydrate content, which provides the final product with a higher percentage of fructose.
Many contend that agave nectar is great for diabetics, since it is low on the glycemic index and has a low glycemic load. This means that it will not raise your blood sugar, and subsequently cause it to crash moments later. It has the sweetness you are looking for — without the sugar rush. Agave sap (the sap that comes directly from the agave plant) has been shown to protect against harmful intestinal bacteria and skin conditions that are a result of Staphloccocus aureus. Traditionally, the Aztecs mixed agave sap with salt and applied it as a poultice to wounds and skin infections.
Unfortunately, the raw form of agave sap that was (and likely still is) used traditionally is not what you will find being sold in stores today. Traditionally, in addition to using the sap topically, the Aztecs used to create a sweetener called miel de agave, or agave honey, by boiling the agave sap for two hours to bring out the sweetness. They also used to let the sap ferment naturally to create a mildly alcoholic beverage called pulque.
Most, if not all, of the agave nectar made and sold for consumption today is not raw, despite often being labeled as such. The sap is highly processed and refined to increase the fructose content. In fact, the fructose is so concentrated in agave syrup, that the concentration is higher than high fructose corn syrup! Surprisingly, agave nectar and high fructose corn syrup are made in the same way. Both are processed with heat, chemicals and genetically modified enzymes.
You may now be asking: If agave syrup nectar is more concentrated in sweetness, and produced the same way as high fructose corn syrup, how can it be safe for diabetics? The answer to this lies in how the body breaks down agave nectar. Simple and refined sugars are processed in the intestines, and then converted into blood glucose, which leads to a quick rise in blood sugar, followed by a crash. Agave nectar is processed in the liver and is either converted to triglycerides or otherwise stored as fat in the body. Because it does not enter the bloodstream, it is deemed safe for diabetics. Even though agave nectar does not raise blood sugar, it may lead to weight gain. This is because it can lead to increased fat storage, and because the fructose it contains can increase appetite.
So is agave nectar truly a natural sweetener? My answer is no. To me, natural means as close to nature as possible, and agave nectar is not that.
This post is the third in a series on natural sweeteners.
Lissa’s passion for educating people about the healing powers of herbs led her to obtain a Masters of Science in Herbal Medicine from the Tai Sophia School of the Healing Arts. She has also studied nutrition and women’s health extensively, and has trained as a doula.
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Article updated on: August 5th, 2010