Agave, Sweetie–It’s Time See Other Sweeteners

*Sigh.*  Oh, agave nectar, I’ve been a big fan, really I have.  But whether I like it or not, the research is piling up against fructose and so it’s time we see other…er…sweets.

Dr. Mercola and WAFP were one of the first to speak out against fructose, and more specifically, agave, and I was intrigued.  Both groups often pick up on issues before they hit the mainstream.  I was initially impressed with how well researched the articles were until I realized that the links were based on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and not a single one of the references in either article actually linked to research done on agave nectar.   Accounts that raw agave isn’t truly raw with (as of yet) hotly debated and unsubstantiated claims on contamination, all based on one person’s account of processing techniques, which the agave industry strongly refutes.  And, according to Mercola’s definition, the amount of fructose in an apple and a cup of blueberries a day is excessive and unhealthy, and I definitely do not agree that fruit should be limited to that extreme.  Same goes for the comment from Mercola that “if you have insulin issues, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or if you’re overweight, I suggest you avoid all sweeteners, including stevia, since any sweetener can decrease your insulin sensitivity.”

There are two main issues here.  One is the dangers of fructose, and the other is the contamination issue.  What is clear is that all sugars (fructose, sucrose and glucose) have the same number of calories, but are not created equal.  Serum fructose levels have a big impact on health, and eating fructose increases serum fructose levels more than eating sucrose or glucose.   However, the problem is that most of the research is focused just on refined fructose, and none actually using agave.  And although there is still a lot of debate on the topic, studies link fructose to greater rates of obesity, increased triglyceride levels, metabolic syndrome, renal dysfunction, high blood pressure, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and, most recently, pancreatic cancer. Some of the finger pointing comes looking at associations over time.  As HFCS became cheaper, manufacturers used it more widely, it was put in everything, and at the same time, most of us got a heck of a lot wider.  And it is totally worth noting that we, as human beings, are eating a lot more, period. It’s not only just a lot more fructose. But experimental studies and randomized control trials are now showing reasons for caution with fructose, and that’s concerning.

So a logical question might be, why would anyone want to eat agave, anyhow?  Well, it is tasty, and for years it was touted as a healthier option. The underlying idea is that it keeps blood sugars stable, and, from a nutritional standpoint, since it’s sweeter, people can use LESS sweetener.  Most people I work with report feeling more satisfied when eating agave rather than sugar.  And, of course, the data out there are still focused on HFCS, and there are some studies on fructose excluding HFCS that don’t show negative impacts on blood sugar or triglycerides at reasonable amounts, and may still be beneficial for diabetics.

Quite honestly, much of the controversy around the processing of agave seems to be a case of “he said/he said”.  Yes, the FDA does not regulate foods very closely, but there is no reason to believe that all agave manufacturers are using toxic substances (especially when they say they are not), lying about processing techniques or that the crops are sprayed with pesticides despite being certified as organic.   One company even invites people to come see their facilities. Maybe I’m just naive…if that is true, there’s no doubt that it’ll come out, and  that would totally change my view point.

But based on the research overall on fructose, I don’t feel comfortable advocating that people switch to agave any longer.  I don’t think we have enough information to know where the line is between HFCS, agave, and fructose from fruit, but at this point, caution and limiting portion sizes makes good sense–for everything!   On the other hand, comparing agave to drinking “anti-freeze” seems totally  blown out of proportion and somewhat silly.  I plan to continue to use small amounts of agave in my baking, because I generally use a blend of sweeteners and there’s usually not more than a tablespoon of agave per serving.  Of course, I don’t have baked goods on most days, either.  And, I plan to increasingly continue to use a variety of small amounts of other sweeteners, like stevia, honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, fruit, coconut sugar and more, too.

So agave, you’re sweet, and I hope we can still be friends…

And if you’d like to read more, this review from Dr. Alan Gaby is from a few years ago but is a good, balanced explanation of the biological mechanisms of how fructose works in the body.

About Cheryl Harris

Life played a funny trick on me. I've studied nutrition for years, and much to my surprise, found out that I could manage many of my health issues via diet. I've been GF for years, and I've got a bunch of allergies and sensitivities. But it definitely doesn't keep me from cooking, baking and enjoying my food. Thanks for stopping by.
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6 Responses to Agave, Sweetie–It’s Time See Other Sweeteners

  1. Thanks for posting all the good info. I’ve been wondering about all the conflicting comments I’ve been reading about agave.

  2. Whereas high fructose corn syrup and refined sugar have roughly equal parts of fructose and glucose, agave “nectar” can be much higher in fructose—up to 90 percent. Here’s what’s important: All these sugars are just that—sugar. It’s better to eat them all in moderation, rather than having to eat your words after harping on one sweetener over another.

  3. Actually, CF, for people with lots of food allergies, there is a big difference. I feel fine when I eat agave. I get very sick when I eat sugar, and get heartburn when I have honey, and I’m allergic to rice, so brown rice syrup is out. And sugar alcohols don’t agree with me. So agave has been my mainstay sweetener, and I’m disappointed to know that it may have health risks we didn’t realize, beyond the calories and carbs.

  4. Pingback: Menu Plan Monday–Tomatoes! | Gluten Free Goodness

  5. Ricki says:

    Just getting to this now–I am so behind on blog reading! I’ve been mulling this over, like you, and I have actually come to the opposite conclusion. I think that agave, when processed properly, isn’t all that different from pure maple syrup. I wouldn’t use EITHER one in large quantities. But like you, too, I feel okay when I eat (a teeny bit of) agave, but not sugar. Have you tried yacon syrup? It’s outrageously expensive but works, too. And my local health food place just started stocking yacon powder, which I’m sure is much easier to use.

  6. Hi Ricki–
    Part of my conclusion was that I’ve been leaning too heavily on agave, and it’s time to branch out.

    Yes, I’ve tried yacon (once) and wasn’t crazy about the taste, but I should experiment further. And I’ve never heard of yacon powder, I’m intrigued!

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