Agave . . . Health or Hype?
“Natural” sweeteners are flooding the market as evidence mounts against white sugar and high fructose corn syrup. As a result, we are often asked if agave is a good substitute for sugar. We get this question so often that we thought it was time to write about it. The short answer is no, but the long answer is a little more complicated.
More than 300 species of agave plants grow in the southern United States and parts of South America and Mexico. Most agave sweeteners are produced from the blue agave plant. The core of the plant contains the aguamiel or “honey water,” the substance used for syrup production (and, when fermented, tequila).
Once touted as one of the healthiest natural sweeteners, beloved agave has recently fallen from grace. The problem lies in the amount of fructose found in most commercial sources of agave (think higher than high fructose corn syrup). To have a deeper understanding of why this might be a bad thing, let’s first look at how we digest fructose.
Fructose is not a direct source of energy for the muscles and the brain like glucose is, but instead travels directly to the liver. Here it is converted to energy, fat or glucose before it can be used by other organs. So it does not have an effect on blood sugar. Though this might seem like a good thing, the reality is that an excess of fructose prompts the liver cells to produce triglycerides, a type of blood fat associated with risk of heart disease, weight gain, liver inflammation and diabetes. For this reason, fructose is sometimes referred to as “the sugar that acts like a fat.”
High levels of fructose in the body’s system can also lead to serious digestive disturbances such as gas, bloating and even Irritable Bowel Syndrome due to the fermentation of the sugars that can occur in the colon.
Remember: Your liver is the gatekeeper for your body. Your liver is responsible for managing all the toxins that your body needs to process. That’s a lot of work! Substances high in fructose (agave, sodas, cereals, yogurts, catsups, etc), place an excessive amount of stress on the liver. Though they might be good for helping to regulate blood sugar (because they do not spike it), they’re still no good for your weight, your digestion or your immunity.
Here are some facts:
- Agave is made up of anywhere from 55% to 92% fructose and 8% to 20% glucose (depending on how the plant is processed to make the agave syrup – more on this in a minute).
- Table sugar (sucrose) is comprised of a mixture of both fructose and glucose in about equal proportions – 50/50.
- High fructose corn syrup contains about 42 – 55% fructose, with the remainder being glucose. So this means that most agave has more fructose than high fructose corn syrup!
Clearly, agave packs a potent portion of fructose for the body to process.
So much like sugar which is extracted from the sugar cane plant, agave is extracted from the agave plant. HOW this extraction process is done is what really matters.
- Many forms of agave (the cheaper, lower quality, more refined versions) are put through extensive cooking processes that alter the chemical structure of the nectar, making it nothing more than man-made fructose.
- Other forms are from companies who aim to make their product using only organic agave, free of pesticides, processed at lower temperatures to preserve the natural enzymes, and creating a product closer to 55% fructose than one that is over 90% fructose. Remember though that raw honey and pure maple syrup have considerably less fructose (about 38% and 10% respectively).
As far as the fructose in fruit, no worries here. The fructose that occurs naturally in fruit is unprocessed and is paired with water, vitamins and fiber, and does not have the same effect as more refined sugars.
So what’s the bottom line?
If your digestion tolerates it, very small amounts of raw organic agave from a reliable source (those that are lower in fructose), are likely to be okay. Choose wisely and discriminately. And remember that all sweeteners, no matter how natural, will still have short and long term health consequences if you consume too much. For women, that would be more than 6 teaspoons a day, and men, 9 teaspoons a day of added sugar. And please, don’t turn to artificial sweeteners to take up the sugar slack. How come? Read all about the downfalls of sugar substitutes here and here.
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