Look on the shelves of your local health-food store or even many mainstream grocers and you’ll likely find agave nectar. Claimed as being low-glycemic and diabetic friendly, it’s been touted as one of the healthiest sweeteners to consume and is now often found in many ‘health foods’. A glance at the label will likely show the words ‘raw’, ‘natural’, and ‘organic’, which can generally steer us in the right direction. In the case of agave, however, we may be led astray.
Agave has become incredibly popular due to it being marketed as a low-glycemic, healthy alternative to sugar. It can taste up to three times sweeter than table sugar, so we need less, but if we investigate a bit further we’ll find that agave is a highly processed, high-fructose sweetener. We know that processed and refined foods, stripped of their nutrients, are things we want to avoid, but with agave, much of the damage lies in the structure of the final product and what it does in our bodies, not just in the fact that it’s a nutrient-devoid sweetener.
Despite many claims of agave syrup or nectar coming from the sap of the agave plant, it is actually made from the starch of the inner bulb of the yucca or agave plant. There are over 100 species of agave plants native to Mexico, South America and Southern US. Most commercially prepared agave comes from the blue agave plant due to its higher carbohydrate content which, through processing, results in higher fructose (sugar) content in the final product.
The fibrous inner portion of the plant used to make agave nectar is a starch, similar to corn or rice, and inulin (an indigestible complex carbohydrate). The starch goes through a series of chemical and enzymatic processes, heating and filtration to break down the carbohydrates into sugar and finally the syrup which we see on the shelves.
Depending on the amount of heat used, and the region the agave plant came from, the syrup can be anywhere from 55 – 90 % fructose. This is similar in profile and processing to high-fructose corn syrup – the bad stuff we’re told to stay away from!
This method of processing also results in an isolated form of fructose. Concentrated and isolated fructose, found in products like agave syrup or high-fructose-corn-syrup, is processed and metabolized in the liver and does not cause insulin secretion. Which means, rather than getting converted to blood sugar in the intestines and affecting blood sugar levels, it can be immediately stored as body fat. This bypassing of the blood sugar response is why agave ranks low on the glycemic index and is said to be safe for diabetics, although in the end, it’s doing more harm than good. It can actually cause weight gain and increase appetite by inhibiting leptin levels, the hormone that tells you when you’re full.
There is research suggesting that in high amounts, isolated fructose can promote obesity and impair liver function as well as contribute to metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and high uric acid levels in the liver.
Fructose in Whole Foods
It is important, however, not to paint all fructose with the same brush. Fructose is a naturally occurring sugar found in fruits and some vegetables, where in its whole-foods form, it comes with all the vitamins, minerals, enzymes and nutrients needed to properly digest and metabolize it. It’s best to get our fructose from fruits and vegetables as part of a whole food, rather than adding an isolated form to our diets.
The bottom line when choosing a sweetener is the same rule of thumb that can be applied to choosing any food; the closer it is to its whole-food form, the better it is for you. Raw, unpasteurized honey, dark maple syrup or stevia leaf can provide a sweet taste in a more natural way.
Choose a sweetener that has the least amount of processing, refining, or change made to it and use it in moderation. And remember, we can find sweetness in our lives from many sources other than sugar. How about picking up that paintbrush and enjoying a hobby next time you are hankering for something sweet.
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