Agave syrup, which is also known as agave nectar, is supposed to be a nutritious, healthy and superior alternative to sugar. Last Christmas, for example, my thoughtful step-daughter, Kathleen, gave me a beautiful container of viscous, amber-colored agave nectar. She knows I don’t eat sugar, and she wanted to do something helpful and appropriate for me.
As I write this article, I’m looking at the container of agave nectar that she gave to me. The front label says “100% pure sweetener” and “certified USDA organic.” The back label touts many other desirable qualities. It’s got a low glycemic index. It’s consistently delicious. It’s got a long shelf-life. It’s easy to use and is appropriate for all your “sweetening needs.” In fact, agave nectar is 1.5 times sweeter than table sugar. And most importantly, it’s a so-called natural product with no additives or preservatives. These are all the reasons why agave is the preferred caloric sweetener for health conscious people.
Agave is called natural because it comes from an agave plant. Likewise, HFCS can be called natural because it comes from corn. And sugar can be called natural because it comes from sugar cane or beets. The word “natural” does not have anything to do with the processing that may or may not have been used to create a food product. It only refers to whether the food comes from a plant-based source or an animal-based source. This is why the term “natural” should be disregarded and not relied upon for purchasing decisions.
The brand given to me comes from Mexico, where agave nectar is widely produced, but agave nectar is also produced in South Africa. The nectar is derived from agave plants, which look a lot like aloe plants. Juice is extracted from the core of the agave. It’s then hydrolized using enzymes or heat or some combination of both. Depending on the process and the type agave plant, the final agave syrup product has a range of 60% to 90% fructose. This means that agave syrup is a processed substance that’s mostly fructose. In comparison, high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, is typically made from a recipe that has anywhere from 42% fructose to 65% fructose.
Another reason that fructose has a good rep is because it’s associated with fruit, and fruit is healthy, right? Fruc even sounds like fruit, and the term “fructose” actually means fruit sugar. Keep in mind that the fructose in fruit is a small, unconcentrated amount that’s easily absorbed by the body. It’s also accompanied by fiber, which slows down the absorption process. In contrast, the fructose in agave syrup, HFCS and other caloric sweetening products is concentrated, fiberless, and in an quantity that easily overloads the body.
Until recently, fructose has been under the scientific radar as a dangerous additive substance because it has a low glycemic index and because fructose doesn’t provoke an insulin response. And why? It’s because fructose isn’t measured by the glycemic index. The glycemic index only measures glucose, and here’s the rub: all caloric sweeteners are compounds made with both glucose and fructose. So yes, the glycemic index is helpful, but it’s only half the picture. The toxic, inflammatory and fattening impact of fructose is totally hidden and ignored. Bottom line: Relying solely on the glycemic index for a health assessment tool is like using a shovel with a big hole in the middle of it.
Glucose and fructose are processed differently in the body, too. Glucose is metabolized and gets deposited in the blood stream. This is why insulin is needed to move the glucose into the cells. Fructose is metabolized in the liver where it’s converted directly to triglycerides (the scientific name for fat). The more fructose you ingest, the more fat you produce. It’s as simple as that. In addition to increased fat production, excessive fructose consumption puts a heavy burden on the liver, provokes inflammation and accelerates the production of uric acid (which results in gout and hypertension).
And lastly, agave has more calories than most other caloric sweeteners. One tablespoon of agave syrup has 60 calories. Compare this to table sugar and HFCS which both have 46 calories per tablespoon.
All things considered, agave syrup isn’t any better than sugar and HFCS, and it might actually be worse. Fat phobic people who won’t eat a teaspoon of butter need to reconsider fructose consumption and the unjustified appeal for agave syrup.
TWO THUMBS DOWN as an alternative to table sugar!