Why does eating have to be so complicated? Here we are at the top of the food chain and we’re confused about what to eat.
Why is that?
Well, first off – everyone has an opinion (from Alicia Silverstone to the Weston A. Price Foundation), nutrient research is confusing, the food industry is often out to make a profit regardless of the impact on our health, we’re all biochemically unique, government subsidies impact choices (why does a salad cost more than a double cheeseburger), advertising targets our weaknesses (sugar, fat and salt), we think we’re too busy to cook real food, we think real food is too expensive, we don’t know what real food is, we have too many “opt-out” choices (fast food on every corner), and the list goes on and on. We’re one of the richest and most resourceful countries in the world and yet we’re overweight, out of shape and generally unhealthy. Each piece of this food/health puzzle could be a PhD thesis.
Every so often I take one little puzzle piece and spout off about it. This time I decided to tackle agave nectar. Keep in mind that I’m not a doctor or your mom, so whatever I say is simply my opinion (refer above to PhD category #1).
What is agave nectar (also called syrup)?
Agave nectar is a sweetener made from the starch and inulin in the root of the agave plant. Maguey (also called the Century Plant) is the “official” name of the more than 200 species of agave plants commercially grown in Mexico. Contrary to what you might think, the plant is part of the lily family and not a cactus. The nectar is being promoted as a healthy, natural, allergen-free, low-glycemic alternative to refined sugar. Agave has a mild and pleasant taste and blends and dissolves easily when used for cooking or baking. It also seems to add lightness and texture to gluten-free baked goods.
Is agave a raw and natural sweetener?
What does raw or natural mean to the food industry? Not much, although both words sound good on paper (or on a product label). Agave is often advertised as a raw and natural sweetener, which gives the impression that it’s an unrefined, organic sweetener. Healthy, pure and unprocessed. Add in the word “nectar” and it sounds divinely healthy. Like some lovely goddess in a long flowing skirt went out into the desert and hand squeezed the organic juice right out of the plant and into the jar. But, according to food guru Marion Nestle, agave’s inulin content requires either heat or enzymes to convert it into a syrupy nectar. Inulin is an indigestible fiber found in the root of the plant. So, regardless of what the label says, it has to be processed in some way. Some of the research I found suggested that it was highly processed using heat and chemicals, in much the same way as HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). Another company claimed their agave product was not chemically processed and never heated above 118 degrees.
Overall, most of the information I found was misleading and confusing. Some claimed their products were low glycemic and a great sugar alternative for diabetics. Some promoted agave for vegans and those on a gluten-free diet. Other articles suggested agave was no better, and maybe even worse, than HFCS. All claimed that agave is sweeter than sugar so you can use less of it, thereby cutting calories. But on further study, I found that agave is higher in calories than sugar, so it’s often a wash depending on how much you use.
The Glycemic Research Institute in Washington DC made a decision last fall to halt a clinical trial of agave because the diabetic subjects were experiencing dangerous side effects related to the ingestion of a certain agave product. In fairness, although I have no idea what this actually means, the agave test food dosages were classified as “high.”
I published a detailed post in 2008 on sugar (check here) and listed all the different kinds of sweeteners. I included agave nectar and noted that I was reserving judgement on it because I didn’t know enough about it. I still don’t.
Is agave nectar similar to HFCS? What is fructose and is it unhealthy?
This could be another PhD thesis, but I’ll stick to the basics. According to my Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition textbook, “Fructose is a monosaccharide sometimes known as fruit sugar or levulose. Fructose is found abundantly in fruits, honey and saps.” Fructose is a simple carbohydrate. There are three monosaccharides that are important in nutrition – glucose, fructose and galactose. Fructose is the sweetest of the sugars. Disaccharides are pairs of monosaccharides linked together. Glucose (sometimes known as blood sugar) is the essential energy source for the body’s activities and occurs in every disaccharide. All sugar (white table sugar, HFCS, agave, honey) is made up of a combination of fructose and glucose. WebMD lists white table sugar with a 50/50 ratio of fructose to glucose. HFCS is listed with a 55 to 45 ratio, meaning it contains more fructose than glucose and therefore sweeter. The various sources I found listed agave nectar at anywhere from 60 to 90% fructose. Remember that agave contains inulin, which is made up of long chains of fructose molecules linked together.
Is that a bad thing?
Not in theory. In fact, inulin can be considered a good thing as it’s a fiber and also a prebiotic. It feeds our friendly bacteria. But here’s the catch. Fructose is okay when you get it from a whole food source and not extracted from the fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, phytonutrients and other goodies that come in the apple, carrot or beet. Studies have shown that commercially extracted fructose, concentrated into a high sugar sweetener (HFCS) can increase metabolic disorders leading to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases. HFCS is very sweet, highly refined, and made from white corn starch. The question is whether agave could contribute to those same problems because of its high fructose content.
Bottom line (in my opinion)? I’m going to stick with honey and maple syrup as my sweeteners of choice, but I’ll use them in moderation. I’ll keep you posted on the subject of agave when I run across further information.
By the way, Alicia Silverstone uses agave nectar in her Kind Diet Cookbook and The Weston A. Price Foundation published an article on agave, calling it the “worse than sugar” and “the latest health scam.” I have Alicia’s cookbook and I absolutely love it and I’m also a member of the WAPF.
Go forth and eat whole foods. You almost (yes, there’s always a catch) can’t go wrong.