The agave syrup/nectar currently sold in grocery stores is not all it's cracked up to be. The marketing leads you to believe that agave nectar is traditional, used for thousands of years by Mexican natives, an "all natural" sweet syrup requiring very little alteration from its natural plant form. This is not the case.
What is modern agave?
Agave syrup is not obtained by squeezing sap from the leaf of the agave plant. This sweetener is made from the large agave root bulb through a process much like high fructose corn syrup is made from corn. Companies differ in their manufacturing processes. Some claim that they do not use genetically modified enzymes, sulphiric/hydracholoric acids, dicalite or clarimex chemicals to make their agave syrup, but most do not make these claims.
The end product: an extremely sweet, highly processed syrup that is almost 70% fructose. Agave syrup is higher in fructose than high fructose corn syrup (55%) and sugar (50%). You will learn shortly why this spells health disaster.
Agave syrup, a history
In the '70s, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) entered the marketplace and quickly became popular as a sugar replacement in packaged foods because it was really sweet and really inexpensive. Its safety for our health has been questioned ever since. Tension has been mounting as consumers demand answers.
Recent ad campaigns have been working hard to convince us that high fructose corn syrup is safe and natural, yet the request to change nutrition labeling from HFCS to “corn sugar” indicate that those attempts at reputation redemption don’t appear to have worked. Suddenly, agave nectar (that's been around since the 1990s) is all the rage. Coincidence? You be the judge.
Why is fructose harmful to your health?
In Dr. Robert Lustig's presentation, Sugar: The Bitter Truth, he explains the many ways that fructose is contributing to Metabolic Syndrome (a cluster of symptoms including obesity, lipid problems, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and liver cirrhosis). Below are some reasons why fructose is bad for us.
- Damages our liver. The liver processes fructose just like alcohol, leading to many similar side effects.
- Fructose disrupts appetite control. It doesn't suppress ghrelin, the hunger hormone in our stomachs, so we stay hungry.
- Tricks our metabolism. It doesn't stimulate insulin or leptin because there is no receptor site on the beta cell of the pancreas. If insulin doesn't go up, neither does leptin and your brain doesn't register that you ate something!
- Overworks our liver. The liver metabolizes fructose and glucose very differently. Eighty percent of calories from fructose are metabolized by the liver as opposed to only 20% of calories from glucose: It is much more work by the liver to break down fructose.
- Raises triglycerides, contributing to heart disease.
Furthermore, and this is specific to the agave plant rather than to fructose, the saponins (a natural component especially high in agave and Yucca species) have some potential health risks: red blood cell disruption, vomiting, diarrhea and possible stimulation to uterine blood flow (may increase risk of miscarriage).
Raw honey, organic maple syrup, dates, stevia, xylitol and organic sugar are preferable to agave syrup.
Fruit does contain fructose, but in low levels, so you needn't worry unless you consume very large amounts of fruit or fruit juice. Instead, focus your efforts on eliminating processed foods and beverages containing high amounts of fructose.