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Agave syrup: What you don't know may hurt you

Agave plant
Agave plant
State Library of Queensland

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.

  1. Damages our liver. The liver processes fructose just like alcohol, leading to many similar side effects.
  2. Fructose disrupts appetite control. It doesn't suppress ghrelin, the hunger hormone in our stomachs, so we stay hungry.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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).

Healthier sweeteners

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.


  • Profile picture of Robyn Chelsea-Seifert
    Robyn Chelsea-Seifert 4 years ago

    Thanks for doing a write up on this Rebecca. We were very surprised to learn just how unhealthy agave syrup was when we decided to use it as an alternative sweetener thinking it was a better choice. I don't believe many realize that. Great information to arm yourself with.

  • Profile picture of Cornrefiner
    Cornrefiner 4 years ago

    The Corn Refiners Association petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asking that manufacturers have the option of using “corn sugar” as an alternate name for high fructose corn syrup on product labels because “corn sugar” more accurately describes the composition of the ingredient.

    High fructose corn syrup is made from corn, a natural grain product. It contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration listed it as safe for use in food in 1983 and reaffirmed the decision in 1996.

    The American Medical Association stated that, “Because the composition of high fructose corn syrup and sucrose are so similar, particularly on absorption by the body, it appears unlikely that high fructose corn syrup contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose.”

    According to the American Dietetic Association, “high fructose corn syrup…is nutritionally equivalent to sucrose. Once absorbed into the blood stream, the two sweeteners are indistinguishable.”

    Furthermore, high fructose corn syrup has the same number of calories (4 per gram) as table sugar and is equal in sweetness. It contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients.

    As many dietitians agree, all sugars should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced lifestyle.

    Consumers can see the latest research and learn more about high fructose corn syrup at

    Audrae Erickson
    Corn Refiners Association

  • Josh G 4 years ago

    high fructose corn syrup is to corn what heroin is to a poppy seed bagel. One is yummy and great with butter, the other will kill you!

  • Profile picture of Rebecca Rovay-Hazelton
    Rebecca Rovay-Hazelton 4 years ago

    haha! ;)

  • Josh G 4 years ago

    pretty "sweet" article!

  • Profile picture of Jessica Burns
    Jessica Burns 4 years ago

    As a nutritionist, I have researched and found information that supports the exact opposite. Recently Agave has gotten some bad press, but I wonder if it's a part of the sugar industries attempts to keep you addicted to the insulin producing sugar that causes diabetes, and obesity. Sugar is far more dangerous than almost any alternative. While it increases insulin, causing mood problems and increases your chances of diabetes, it also is processed with Chlorine. I agree Stevia is a wonderful option. I'd also encourage those fearful of Agave to try Yacon Syrup. All three are low in their insulin producing effects. Good Luck!

  • Profile picture of Rebecca Rovay-Hazelton
    Rebecca Rovay-Hazelton 4 years ago

    Thanks for your comment. You are right about insulin being a drawback of sugar. It is the fructose in agave that is problematic for health and weight gain. As a nutritionist, you would loveDr. Robert Lustig's video that I link to in my article. I'd love to hear your feedback.

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