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Agave Nectar: The Bitter Truth About This “Natural” Sweetener

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agave plant 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.


Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agave_nectar

http://www.foodrenegade.com/agave-nectar-good-or-bad/

http://www.naturalnews.com/024892_fructose_food_health.html

http://herbs.lovetoknow.com/Types_of_Agave


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.

Have a question for Lissa? Send her an email and she’ll get back to you!

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13 responses to “Agave Nectar: The Bitter Truth About This “Natural” Sweetener”

  1. RealFoodie says:

    “Surprisingly, agave nectar and high fructose corn syrup are made in the same way. Both are processed with heat, chemicals and genetically modified enzymes.”

    Both are processed with heat, but certified organic agave nectar does use chemicals or GMO's. I don't know where you are getting your information, but this is incorrect. HFCS is heavily processed using all kinds of acids and chemicals, whereas agave nectar uses heat, filtration, and evaporation only. That's a big difference and shouldn't be glazed over or misrepresented.

    The process for agave nectar is more similar to the processing of maple syrup (heat, filtration, evaporation).

    I'd also like to see you mention that fructose, as in the fructose found in fruit, honey and agave, is fine when consumed in moderation, and with a balanced diet. That is really the point to me.

    • CasieT says:

      I agree that fructose is perfectly fine so long as its derived and left in its unaltered state. From what I understand, miel de agave is made similarly to maple syrup but that most producers of agave syrup or sweetener dont use this practice. Its apparently hard to get “true” agave and even ones that are labeled “organic” can be misleading. Granted they may follow the laws they are bound to by the word “organic” on a food label, but they use the root of the plant which is highly concentrated. I think if you can genuinely trust your food supplier that they are using the sap of the plant and processing it a particular way, then fine. But apparently the manufactures arent the most honest in their marketing approach. I plan on sticking with honey or, better yet, train my palette to not need sweeteners at all :)

    • Lissa says:

      Thank you for your input and added insight.

  2. Sue says:

    Lissa, what do you think about other sweeteners like Stevia and another product I have heard about called “Whey Low?” Sometimes I wonder if it's just better to use natural sugar if one is not a diabetic.

    • Lissa says:

      Stevia is beneficial. Whole leaf stevia that is actually green in color is natural, just finely ground so it can be used as we use sugar. It is a better alternative to artificial sweeteners such as Equal, etc. I actually wrote an article about it a short while ago where you can find more detailed information about it.

      In my opinion, I opt for honey. Clover or Tupelo honey are great sweeteners that do not have a strong taste. They are great to use in desserts as well.

      • RealFoodie says:

        I agree – Stevia is a great sweetener. It is a green leaf, and is sold in some stores now in the natural plant form. But the leaves are naturally sweet until they are processed. Some brands, like Truvia, put the stevia leaves through a significant process and bleach it to turn it white in color. Other brands out there keep it more natural with less processing. The only drawback with Stevia is the metallic aftertaste (most of my friends agree). Honey is good, too, unless you're diabetic and need low glycemic sweeteners, or you are vegan. As you know, I love agave nectar, and it is low glycemic, which is a benefit to not getting insulin spikes (blood sugar spikes and crashes), and is vegan.

        • RealFoodie says:

          Sorry… meant to say “But the leaves are NOT naturally sweet until they are processed.”

  3. RealFoodie says:

    CasieT and Lissa – it seems to me that you are both casting doubt on the manufacturers of agave syrup (miel de agave), and no one can defend these companies' practices – but I ask why? I have witnessed first-hand the production from three of the largest producers in Mexico, and can tell you that these companies are extremely stringent in all aspects of the production and quality. These manufacturers are inspected and certified by internationally recognized organizations, such as Quality Assurance International and OKO Garantie (these USDA-recognized organizations are not based in Mexico – you can research them yourselves to find out about how strenuous their certification process is). These agave products are tested, and reviewed in great detail by retailers such as Whole Foods, and certified organic. I hope you don't take this as inflammatory, but using information that you've read from the internet, like I've seen written by others casting doubt on the manufacturers is truly unfair unless you know personally or back it up with facts. So I've done my own visits to the manufacturers, as has vanessa at Gnosis Chocolate (her report back is in this interesting article: http://www.gnosischocolate.com/agave-report ) and now I'm passionate about speaking from experience.

    CasieT: You say that most manufacturers DON'T use the process similar to maple syrup. That is incorrect. Are you're assuming everything you read on the internet is a good source? The only large manufacturer that DOESN'T use a similar process is Madhava, because this company uses enzymes instead of heat in their process. All the other major manufacturers use heat, filtering, then evaporation. BTW – There's only two ways of production being used – heat or enzymatic.

    I am interested to know why some believe these ongoing rumors about unscrupulous manufacturers are valid? Case in point: Dr. Mercola sells his own line of honey (stating it contains 70% fructose) on his site – and at the same time, he continues to lead the charge that agave is bad because of it contains fructose and that you can't trust the quality of the production. Has Dr. Mercola ever seen an agave production first-hand? I know that he's been invited, but to my knowledge, he has not taken up these offers.

    • Mina says:

      Hi RealFoodie – Thank you for your insightful comments! I'm just curious, which agave manufacturers have you visited? I read Vanessa's report, and also this post on the blog for the company that makes Coconut Bliss ice cream: http://coconutbliss.blogspot.com/2010/03/doug-v…

      I think it’s perfectly valid to say that agave nectar is a “processed” food (even in the absence of concrete proof of the extent to which it may or may not be heated, filtered, concentrated or otherwise altered from its “natural” state). However, I don't know if that automatically makes it an “unhealthy” or inherently bad. In my opinion, the measure of how “healthy” a food is depends on the context in which it's consumed (i.e. are you dumping agave in everything, or using it and other concentrated sweeteners in strict moderation). I think it's much more complex than just its chemical composition or the extent to which it's processed.

      Of course, in general, it’s best to exercise restraint when using concentrated sweeteners. Personally, I now prefer to use stevia as my sweetener of choice. But for a while, I relied on agave nectar to add sweetness to the superfood smoothies I made each morning before work. It made them taste great, and I discovered that I felt great when I started my day this way. For anyone who is in the process of moving to a cleaner diet, if agave and products made with it (like the amazing chocolate Gnosis makes) make the transition easier, I think that's a very good thing.

      I think all of us who identify as part of the natural health community know that this kind of intense controversy and “nutritional alarmism” is common. We've learned to reject the mainstream foods, drugs and health information we're continually force fed, and we've learned to be skeptical of all claims. Unfortunately, when it comes to natural products, there often just isn't extensive clinical evidence to rely upon when we attempt to separate truth from alarmism or marketing hype. I truly believe that our best resources are each other…and open forums of discussion like this one.

  4. RealFoodie says:

    Mina, you are completely on point – I believe that trying to frame any discussion around agave and its use should be made using facts. I have seen the same facilities that Vanessa reports on, as well as the facility that produces Wholesome Sweeteners, Trader Joe's and several other brands on the market. Additionally, I have inspected 3 other facilities that produce for other smaller brands.

    I think it's important to get facts and point out misconceptions that seem to be regurgitated by alarmist and some who are misinformed. Sorry to pick on you, CasieT, but your short comment was both misinformed and alarmist. Let me show you…

    CasieT's stated: “From what I understand, miel de agave is made similarly to maple syrup but that most producers of agave syrup or sweetener dont use this practice.”

    Misinformed. Most producers do use this practice. Very few use the other process which involves organic enzymes in place of heat.

    CasieT said: “Its apparently hard to get “true” agave and even ones that are labeled “organic” can be misleading.”

    Misinformed. Why is it hard to get “true” agave? Agave plants are plentiful and reputable producers are supplying agave syrup to companies all over the world. To be labeled “organic” and get on the shelves of Whole Foods, etc., each brand has to prove that it is certified. If you're buying a hand-labeled bottle of agave nectar on the side of the road, maybe???

    CassieT said: “Granted they may follow the laws they are bound to by the word “organic” on a food label, but they use the root of the plant which is highly concentrated. But apparently the manufactures arent the most honest in their marketing approach.”

    Misinformed and alarmist. Cassie, I don't know what you're talking about. All agave syrups and tequilas use the heart of the agave (what you refer to as the “root”). You can't get anything from the spiky leaves, so what else would the producers use? And, since you're casting a disparaging remark about manufacturers, how can you back that up?

    And finally, Lissa stated: “In the case of agave nectar, several brands label their Blue Agave as “raw” when the processing it goes through renders it a non-raw sweetener.”

    The brands that are produced as “raw” at the major facilities use 118 degrees F as the standard to stay below while adding heat. This is a widely used mark for many “raw” foods. Consider that the natural heat inside these inulin-rich plants basking in the Jalisco sun for 7 – 10 summers reaches temperatures hotter than this. So heating the sap to 117 degrees does not destroy the natural inulin or minerals that exist in the juice. ALL legitimate brands list these raw production temperatures on their web sites, and aren't out to dupe anyone into believing that this sweet syrup drips out of the plant like this.

    Compare this to stevia for a moment. Stevia is considered a natural sweetener because it comes from the leaves of the plant. But the package of Truvia (or any other brand) in your pantry doesn't describe in detail the production process that goes into turning that bitter leaf into sweet granules or a liquid (many of which are bleached to get the white color). If you disagree, then try plucking a stevia leaf and dropping it into your tea or coffee. I like stevia, but is it natural? It just depends upon your personal criteria. (I say it is, but based on these posts, maybe some of you don't?)

    I maintain, after personal research, that agave is a natural sweetener. It is low glycemic. It is sweeter than sugar so I can use less and save calories. It's not heavily processed with caustic chemicals like many sugars. It does not begin as a GMO and is raised organically. It is harvested by hand the way it has been for centuries. I like the way it tastes. I use a few teaspoons a day in my tea and yogurt. It's all about moderation, farming practices and choice for me.

    • CasieT says:

      Hi RealFoodie, nI certainly didnt mean to sound alarmist and hopefully my tone (and limited knowledge regarding agave) was made clear by my use of words such as “apparently” and “from what I understand.” My statements were, in fact, simply based on “from what I understand.”nIn general, one just has to research as much as possible and make decisions based on his or her findings since many of us do not make it a priority to visit agave factories.. nIt is not always easy to obtain accurate information so thank you for providing me with some more things to think about. nMy ultimate goal is to steer away from most added sweeteners altogether so that I can just train my taste buds to appreciate flavors without added sweeteners at all. I will still lean towards honey, however, since I just like its taste and texture more.nn

  5. Tom says:

    I’m not yet convinced this sweeteners is as bad as the rest. I live in the desert southwest and can buy locally produced agave syrup. I’ll have to do some more research, but I think I’ll find that what I’m getting will be OK. At least its locally produced for all the locavores that care!

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