The popularity of agave syrup, also called agave nectar, is on a meteoric rise — thanks in large part to clever marketing which positions the product as a healthy alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Agave is also heavily promoted as a low glycemic food, enticing diabetics.
I’ll discuss just how “healthy” agave is in a minute.
The amazing power of marketing
In case you doubt the influence of marketing in setting trends and consumer buying habits, look at these statistics:
- Agave products more than tripled in number between 2003 and 2007.
- McCormick & Co., a major food manufacturer, placed agave syrup in its “top 10 flavors” list for 2009.
Agave can now be found in prepared tea, energy and “health” drinks, nutrition bars, desserts, and other food items typically found in health food stores.
Agave is also quickly crossing over from the health food market to mainstream grocery chains, and consumers (especially vegans and raw food enthusiasts) are buying up bottles of the stuff to use in place of other sweeteners, like honey.
3 reasons why agave syrup is a hot trend in sugar substitutes
Agave has a subtle, delicate flavor many people enjoy.
Agave syrup can be up to three times as sweet as table sugar, so it takes less to sweeten a food or beverage.
Highly effective agave product marketing campaigns have persuaded consumers the sweetener is a healthy alternative to sugar. As more and more people veer away from deadly artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup (but not from their sugar addiction, unfortunately), they are on the hunt for safer, healthier alternatives.
About the agave plant
Agaves grow primarily in Mexico, but you can also find them in the southern and western United States, as well as in South America. Previously, it was most commonly known as a primary ingredient of tequila. Agaves are not cacti, but are actually related to the lily and amaryllis families of plants.
There are over 100 species of agave plants, in a wide variety of sizes and colors.
Edible parts of the agave are the flowers, leaves, stalks and the sap. It is the sap of the plant that is used to make agave syrup.
Commercially available agave syrup or nectar is thought to be produced primarily from blue agave plants grown in Southern Mexico. This is because the blue agave has a high carbohydrate content, which results in a high concentration of fructose in the final product.
Harvesting the agave sap
When an agave plant is about seven to 10 years old, the leaves are removed to expose the core, or pina, of the plant. The harvested pina looks like a large pineapple and can weigh anywhere from 50 to 150 pounds.
Sap is removed from the pina, filtered, and heated to break down the carbohydrates into sugars.
The same agave plant produces all three varieties of commercially sold syrup, depending on the amount of heat used in processing. These varieties include:
- Raw (color is similar to maple syrup and flavor is similar to caramel)
- Light (lighter color and flavor than raw)
- Amber (similar in color and flavor to raw)
Many varieties of agave nectar are processed at relatively low temperatures (below 118°F) and are marketed as a “raw” food.
The myth of agave syrup as a “healthy” sugar substitute
Let’s clear up a a few things about the myth that agave syrup is a healthy sugar substitute..
Agave syrup is neither a natural food nor organic:
Fully chemically processed sap from the agave plant is known as hydrolyzed high fructose inulin syrup.
According to Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health:
“[Agave is] almost all fructose, highly processed sugar with great marketing.”
Agave syrup is not low calorie:
Agave syrup is about 16 calories per teaspoon, the same as table sugar.
Agave syrup may not have a low glycemic index:
Depending upon where the agave comes from and the amount of heat used to process it, your agave syrup can be anywhere from 55 percent to 90 percent fructose! (And it’s likely you won’t be able to tell from the product label.)
This range of fructose content hardly makes agave syrup a logical choice if you’re hoping to avoid the high levels of fructose in HFCS (high fructose corn syrup).
And if you’re diabetic, you should know that the alleged benefit of agave for diabetics is purely speculative. Very few agave studies have been documented, and most involved rats. There have been no clinical studies done on its safety for diabetics.
Since most agave syrup has such a high percentage of fructose, your blood sugar will likely spike just as it would if you were consuming regular sugar or HFCS, and you would also run the risk of raising your triglyceride levels. It’s also important to understand that whereas the glucose in other sugars are converted to blood glucose, fructose is a relatively unregulated source of fuel that your liver converts to fat and cholesterol.
A significant danger here is that fructose does not stimulate your insulin secretion, nor enhance leptin production, which is thought to be involved in appetite regulation. (This was detailed in one of the most thorough scientific analyses published to date on this topic.)
Because insulin and leptin act as key signals in regulating how much food you eat, as well as your body weight, dietary fructose can also contribute to increased food intake and weight gain.
Therefore, if you need to lose weight, fructose is one type of sugar you’ll definitely want to avoid, no matter what the source is.
Other dangers of fructose
In addition, consuming high amounts of concentrated fructose may cause health problems ranging from mineral depletion, to insulin resistance, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and even miscarriage in pregnant women.
Fructose may also interfere with your body’s ability to metabolize copper. This can result in depletion of collagen and elastin, which are vital connective tissues. A copper deficiency can also result in anemia, fragile bones, defects in your arteries, infertility, high cholesterol and heart disease, and uncontrolled blood sugar levels.
Additionally, fructose consumption has been shown to significantly increase uric acid. Elevated levels of uric acid are markers for heart disease. It has also been shown to increase blood lactic acid, especially in diabetics. Elevations in lactic acid can result in metabolic acidosis.
Isolated fructose has no enzymes, vitamins or minerals and can rob your body of these nutrients in order to assimilate itself. Hence, consumption of fructose can also lead to loss of vital minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc.
Other reasons you should steer clear of agave
1. There are very few quality controls in place to monitor the production of agave syrup. Nearly all agave sold in the U.S. comes from Mexico. Industry insiders are concerned agave distributors are using lesser, even toxic, agave plants due to a shortage of blue agave.
There are also concerns that some distributors are cutting agave syrup with corn syrup — how often and to what extent is anyone’s guess. In addition, the FDA has refused shipments of agave syrup due to excessive pesticide residues.
2. Agave syrup is not a whole food — it is fractionated and processed. The sap is separated from the plant and treated with heat, similar to how maple sap is made into maple syrup. Agave nectar is devoid of many of the nutrients contained in the original, whole plant.
3. Agave syrup is not a live food. The natural enzymes are removed to prevent agave syrup from fermenting and turning into tequila in your food pantry or cabinet.
4. Agave is, for all intents and purposes, highly concentrated sugar. Sugar and sweeteners wreak havoc on your health and are highly addictive.
The case against sugar
No matter your nutritional type, sugar is not good for you. Certainly you can tolerate small amounts if you are healthy and the majority of your diet is healthy, but let’s face it the average American is consuming over 150 pounds a year of sugar or nearly half a pound a day. Ideally your annual consumption should be well under ten pounds per YEAR.
Sugar increases your insulin and leptin levels and decreases receptor sensitivity of both these hormones. This can lead to a wide range of health problems, including weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, premature aging, and heart disease.
Sugar suppresses your immune system, causing problems with allergies and digestive disorders. It can even bring on depression.
Worse than any sugar: Artificial sweeteners
The worst of all possible choices are artificial sweeteners. They are, without question, far more damaging to your health than regular sugar.
While I don’t recommend it, consuming sugar in moderation isn’t likely to cause serious health problems. Moderation in this case is five pounds or less per year, which is a far cry from the 150 pounds per year consumed by the majority of Americans.
If you’re interested in kicking your sugar addiction, I highly recommend trying a meridian tapping technique called Turbo Tapping, which has helped thousands of people kick their sugar and soda habits.
Have you tried stevia?
If you’re determined to sweeten your foods and beverages, I urge you to consider using stevia. Stevia is a sweet herb, safe and natural. It is much sweeter than sugar, but has no calories. It is my personal choice of sweetener.
In the U.S., you’ll find stevia not in the sweetener aisle of your local grocery, but in the supplement section. It can be used in appetizers, beverages, soups, salads, vegetables, desserts — just about anything.
If you’ve tried stevia and were bothered by an aftertaste, it could be the way the plant was processed. You should try a few different brands until you find one that tastes good.
However, 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.
For everyone else, my recommendation is to:
- Eliminate all artificial sweeteners
- Avoid agave
- Limit sugar
- Use raw, organic honey in moderation
- Use regular stevia in moderation, but avoid stevia-based sweeteners like Truvia and PureVia
New York Times bestselling author Dr. Mercola graduated from the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1982. And while osteopaths or D.O.s are licensed to prescribe medication and perform surgery just like medical doctors (M.D.s), they bring something extra to the practice of medicine.
Osteopathic physicians practice a "whole person" approach to medicine, treating the entire person — rather than just the symptoms. Focusing on preventive health care, D.O.s help patients develop attitudes and lifestyles that don't just fight illness, but help prevent it too.
Dr. Mercola is passionate about natural medicine and strongly believes that the current medical system is largely manipulated and controlled by large corporations whose primary focus is profit. His website, Mercola.com, which started as a small hobby interest in 1997, has now grown to today’s number one natural health website educating and empowering millions to take back the control over their own health.
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