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Agave Danger!

March 25, 2009 Written by JP       [Font too small?]

As you’ve probably gathered I’m a big supporter of the natural health industry. On the whole I believe they promote a healthier society by providing alternative options for an increasingly toxic world. However on occasion I need to point out areas in which I disagree with certain prevailing notions within the industry. Today I’m going to discuss one disturbing trend with regard to the promotion of a natural sweetener called agave nectar (or syrup).

The Blue Agave PlantMost people are familiar with agave when it takes the form of tequila. But over the past few years, this succulent plant has been used to manufacture a “healthy” sweetener. There are several reasons why it has been designated as such: 1) It’s often grown organically, 2) It ranks lower on the glycemic index than many other sweeteners – which possibly means a lesser impact on blood sugar levels, 3) It’s an exotic and novel ingredient.

So what’s so harmful about an exotic, organically grown plant that has a milder effect on blood sugar levels? I can answer that question in one word: fructose. Fructose is a simple sugar found in many fruits and vegetables. It’s also one of the most controversial ingredients currently found in the food supply – when it’s used as a concentrated sweetener.

Perhaps you’ve heard of a food additive called high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This is a sweetening agent that is found in many pre-packaged and refined foods. Scientific research has linked HFCS to a number of health consequences, such as: diabetes, high triglycerides, metabolic syndrome and even gout. HFCS is now generally considered the worst offender in the realm of sweeteners. Its has reached the status that trans-fats (hydrogenated fats) have obtained in the world of dietary fat sources.

As bad as HFCS is, it doesn’t hold a candle to agave syrup. The following nutritional analysis will help to explain why:

  • HFCS typically contains about 42% to 55% fructose.
  • Agave syrup can contain in excess of 90% fructose.
  • For comparisons sake, honey contains about 40% fructose.

In addition to those disturbing facts, there is also another issue worth considering. Does agave possess any other properties that would somehow make it worth using? One recent experiment analyzed the relative quantities of antioxidants in several sugar alternatives. The following findings were published in the January 2009 edition of the Journal of American Dietetic Association:

  • The sweeteners with the highest antioxidant scores were: blackstrap and dark molasses.
  • Sweeteners with mid-range antioxidant scores were: honey and maple syrup.
  • Agave, corn syrup and refined sugar provided the weakest antioxidant effects.
Fructose Consumption

This matters in the real world because scientific evidence is telling us that high fructose consumption may play a significant role in the current diabetic and obesity epidemics. A reminder was just published in the March issue of the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. Researchers from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine examined 9 years of laboratory work relating to the role that fructose plays on the brain.

In essence, what they found was that fructose stimulates the desire to eat more. Glucose, another common form of sugar, did not show the same effect. This finding provoked the following response from M. Daniel Lane, one the scientists involved in this study, “We feel that these findings may have particular relevance to the massive increase in the use of high fructose sweeteners (both high fructose corn syrup and table sugar) in virtually all sweetened foods, most notably soft drinks. The per capita consumption of these sweeteners in the USA is about 145 lbs/year and is probably much higher in teenagers/youth that have a high level of consumption of soft drinks.”

The moral of the story? We should never simply accept that something is healthful just because it’s natural. Ultimately, we’re the guardians of what goes into and stays out of our bodies. Being as informed as possible will help us avoid missteps like the one promoted by (otherwise good) manufacturers that use agave in their products. We can even take this one step further and contact said manufacturers and express concern about this trend. This may help to hasten the shift from unhealthy sugar substitutes, such as agave syrup.

Personally, I don’t use a lot of sweeteners in my diet. But when I choose to, I opt for pure stevia. There’s a great deal of scientific and traditional evidence to support its safety. The commercial availability and ease of use for stevia products will improve in the coming months and years. It’s popularity is growing and the restrictions on its sale are also relaxing. I think stevia is a step in the right direction for anyone who is looking for the safest sweetening option out there.

Be well!

JP

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18 Comments to “Agave Danger!”

  1. David Says:

    Interesting article. I usually also recommend Stevia as the best sweetener, possibly. Once I used Agave, but really I never use sugar, brown sugar, fructose or any sweetener. I tend to use cinnamon so much as I can since it improves insulin sensitivity. Congrats for your blog, hugs from Europe.

  2. JP Says:

    I’m a big cinnamon fan myself, David.

    Thanks for commenting and continued health.

    Be well!

    JP

  3. Karen Says:

    I understand the recommendation of stevia. But I personally find it tastes nasty and has as strong a chemical after-taste as aspartame. Thankfully, I have no problem doing without sweeteners. And if I bake (on rare occassions), I just use lesser amounts of sugar. But I don’t have diabetes, so I can afford a tiny bit of sugar every now and then.

  4. JP Says:

    Karen,

    I’ve found that stevia products can vary quite dramatically in taste. After some experimentation, I’ve discovered some without any significant aftertaste. It’s all about trial and error, I think. In the future, as the stevia market grows, I think it’ll be easier to find a consistently reliable source that provides adequate sweetness and flavor.

    Be well!

    JP

  5. Lindsey Says:

    Is there any scientific research to back up your concern with agave nectar in particular? All the research you cite here is with high fructose corn syrup.

  6. JP Says:

    Good day, Lindsey.

    A recent animal study found that agave raises triglycerides levels – an established risk factor for heart disease.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T0P-4XCYJF8-1&_user=10&_coverDate=12%2F07%2F2009&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=3cde51f41acec89470055b154184ad70

    Then there’s the study I cited (in the column) that found that agave has a low antioxidant value – comparable to that of corn syrup and refined sugar.

    http://www.adajournal.org/article/S0002-8223%2808%2901891-9/abstract

    Beyond that, it’s really my overall concern about the total fructose content of agave that troubles me.

    http://journals.lww.com/co-lipidology/pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=2010&issue=02000&article=00009&type=abstract

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805058/?tool=pubmed

    http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/content/abstract/139/11/2067

    Be well!

    JP

  7. Donna Says:

    Thanks for the info. It is hard to find neutral sources on “health” foods. I had recently purchased agave syrup as I had heard the hype! Good to know that a little sucrose is better – look where we are now where refined sugar is considered natural! (and promoted as such) which Stevia preparations do you recommend- otherwise I think it will be maple syrup for me.
    Thanks

  8. JP Says:

    Thank you, Donna. :)

    Agave syrup is the latest “it” item at health food stores. It’s too bad but it’s true. I’m not in favor of this trend.

    At the moment, I’m using two different stevia products: Soooo Sweet! and Now Foods Organic Stevia with Inulin.

    Speaking of maple syrup, I also use a sugar-free maple syrup that’s sweetened with xylitol (a natural sugar alcohol derived from birch trees and/or corn). It’s manufactured by Nature’s Hollow.

    Be well!

    JP

  9. Larry Says:

    Thanks for the info. I have one question, though. Is the fructose in HFCS identical to that of agave? I know the fructose of HFCS has to process through the liver. Is this always true of any fructose?

  10. JP Says:

    Larry,

    It can be said that agave undergoes less processing the HFCS. But for all intents and purposes, the fructose component is the same. This would apply to any form of fructose but would obviously be affected by the percentage of fructose and other components that can impact fructose utilization – example: fiber and select phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables.

    Be well!

    JP

  11. Mike Says:

    The Weston A. Price Foundation, Dr. Joseph Mercola, MD, and Nexxus Magazine have all written extensively on the agave consumer fraud, as well as the FDA having succesfully criminally prosecuted this NON GRAS (Generally Recognize As Safe), unapproved, miscarriage causing, red blood cell membrane destroying, falsely labeled sweetener, that is “hydrolyzed high fructose inulin syrup”, per FDA, that causes obesity, cardio vascular disease, even at low levels, and is extremely harmful to diabetcs and any health compromised ingestees. Agave is not natural, naturally occurring, raw, organic, kosher, hala, or safe, period…it is a criminal consumer FRAUD.

  12. chippy Says:

    what about palm sugars and coconut sugars,
    they have only approx:
    3% fructose,
    3% glucose,
    85% sucrose,
    and are GI of 35. they are not refined and are sustainable, plus they taste really good, like brown sugar, no after taste. they come from the sap from the flower of the tree not the tree itself, they boil it down and filter it, and dry it, that’s it, plus they have all sorts of amino acids and mineral content. your thoughts on these sugars? oh, they are expensive though in Canada like $12/lb but in USA like $6/lb because of import costs. I say it is worth it if the health benefits are true, the taste is better than cane sugar!

  13. JP Says:

    Chippy,

    I personally try to avoid all sources of added sugar. If I feel the desire/need to sweeten something such as hot chocolate or a low carb pie, I generally use stevia.

    Even natural sources of sugar tend to contain only minimal amounts of amino acids and nutrients. The trade off simply isn’t worthwhile, IMO.

    Be well!

    JP

  14. chippy Says:

    I don’t understand, “trade off” ? what trade off is there with using a low carb palm sugar, did I mention that it also does not feed yeast? people with leaky gut syndrome can use it to their hearts content, as can diabetics since it’s low GI does not spike insulin – the only “trade off” I can see is the cost, but I hear you can now get it in bulk stores at half price. it is not about getting amino acids, that was just a bonus, it is about having food sweetened with great taste at no consequence to your health. so I am not sure what you mean by “trade off” can you clarify?

    thanks
    Chippy

  15. JP Says:

    Chippy,

    Please understand that I’m not trying to be defensive or offensive in any way. I’m just presenting my perspective.

    Added sugar, no matter the source, provides empty calories because it doesn’t contribute any significant nutrition or therapeutic effect.

    Example: If you eat a bowl of blueberries, it will contribute some naturally occurring sugar. But it also yields antioxidants, fiber and nutrients. Isolated sugar does not.

    Also, any form of actual sugar cannot be low carb. IMO, diabetics do best avoiding any added sugar. This may seem an unattainable goal but it is possible.

    I can’t really comment intelligently about the claims re: leaky gut syndrome and yeast without seeing the data which supports those claims.

    Be well!

    JP

  16. chippy Says:

    the GI of palm sugars is 35 or less. It is safe for Diabetics as it does not spike insulin. and therefor also does not cause excessive hunger/weight gain – this is a fact.

    I have seen many articles questioning the safety of Stevia and that pregnant women are allegedly not supposed to use it, yet palm sugar is safe. I consider that to be the canary in the coal mine.

    As far as empty calories, there are only 10 per tsp, and it contains a significant amount of glutamine, far from empty. By the way I hold no interests in the palm sugar industries or any other related industries for the record. Please also understand that I’m not trying to be defensive or offensive in any way either, I am just looking for the best and safest alternative sweetener. I have no other motive. I understand that this is only IYO, but perhaps we can all have a more open mind and deal with facts as opposed to opinions. then draw from that.

    Then again…. this is your web site, and your party,

    All the best to you.
    thanks
    chippy.

  17. Magickal Hummingbyrd Says:

    *** Dear J.P. ***

    You said that you use a sweetener called *Xylitol* along with your Stevia! *** *Xylitol* is Deadly Fatal to ALL animals & cats & dogs & ferrets & birds etc! It is NOT Natural! It is a deadly Chemical! *** It is Deadly Fatal to them & I cannot imagine why anyone would ingest *Xylitol* or call it harmless & healthy! *** GOOGLE: Xylitol Toxic ***

    ~*~*~*~ Magickal Hummingbyrd ~*~*~*~

  18. JP Says:

    Thank you for your comments, MH. :)

    Xylitol is natural. It occurs naturally in numerous fruits and vegetables. Purified forms of xylitol are typically derived from birch trees or corn.

    It’s true that xylitol is toxic for dogs, but so is avocado, dark chocolate, garlic and several other foods that are typically health promoting for humans.

    The evidence for harm stemming from xylitol (in humans) is lacking, IMO. In fact, there have been some rather positive findings of late:

    http://www.healthyfellow.com/465/erythritol-and-xylitol-news/

    Be well!

    JP

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