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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.

So there.

Go forth and eat whole foods. You almost (yes, there’s always a catch) can’t go wrong.
Melissa

You might also find the following posts interesting (and sweet).
Sugar, part 2 – HFCS commercials
Boo hoo! (high fructose candy corn syrup)
Liquid candy
Corny spoof on HFCS

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33 Responses to “what’s the deal with agave nectar”

  1. hmm. so I found a flourless cookie recipe online. it calls for 1/2 granular Splenda. I was thinking of substituting agave syrup and/or stevia. but I didn’t know how much to substitute. 1:1….and then you post about agave on this very day!what are the odds? XO

  2. Linda says:

    Thank you for delving into this! I am a frequent agave user and have been hearing more and more lately about negatives associated with it. I am bummed because so very many of my favorite recipes call for it. I also have to say that I do not have the blood sugar drop when I have agave that I experience severly with honey. Any thoughts on that?

  3. lo says:

    All the information (and misinformation) out there about agave nectar is really frustrating. Like you, I’ve been trying to get a straight answer about the stuff for a couple of years now… and, rather than straight answers, all I can seem to find is more muck to wade through.

    I’m keeping my eyes and ears open on all fronts. But, rather than stressing out about it, I’ve decided to treat agave nectar like any sugar… use it in moderation. Kinda like tequila (another product of the agave plant).

    Thanks for all the info, Melissa. Enlightening, as always!

  4. Megan says:

    I know, I’ve been conflicted about agave recently. I just wish honey didn’t make everything taste so honey-ey. I can’t stand it in my salad dressings. Sigh. I guess I’ll just use good old sugar for some things.

  5. Alta says:

    Good post, Melissa. I am a user of agave nectar, but even still – I use it sparingly. I don’t use hardly any sweeteners, sugar or otherwise, in my daily cooking. Those are for treats – and treats aren’t eaten every day. But on the other hand, I don’t want to promote the use of agave nectar as an amazing solution to the world’s health problems – so I appreciate any and all information related to it!

  6. deb says:

    I was using agave in place of sugar, then started seeing all the negative press. I pretty much did all the same research you did and came to a similar conclusion. I am starting to use raw stevia powder (NOT the new, white, crystalized junk being sold). It’s a lot of trial & error b/c it’s so sweet that it doesn’t take much to overdo it. THe biggest negative is raw stevia is green and therefore slightly changes the color of what you are making. Not a big deal if you are making brownies, but wouldn’t work if you were trying to make white frosting. Anyway, that’s my 2cents worth.

  7. Jen says:

    YES!! Your post is quite similar to mine from the other day. Thank you for spreading the knowledge!!

  8. Cid says:

    Melissa,

    I’m feeling terribly guilty because as we speak I’m boiling up another batch of pecan fudge (where’s the diet gone I hear you cry!). It’s just that I like to play and if it involves a bit of chemistry in the form of a sugar thermometer then I’m instantly intrigued… and more than a little cautious looking at the burnt pan from the last effort :)

    I always use unrefined sugars and sometimes maple syrup but as a rule of thumb, I judge every sugary thing as potentially dangerous… but not as dangerous as their sweetener substitutes which I don’t trust and don’t like.

    Another really informative article straight to the facts… brilliant stuff.

    Cid

  9. Bravo, bravo, Melissa! THANK you for this thorough explanation. Like everyone here, I, too have been following the recent findings on agave nectar and have been confused and disappointed. I know in the end there’s truly no ‘healthy’ sweetener but because I am a therapeutic chef and baker, I at least try to find ‘better’ ones. I will be linking to this post soon to enlighten (and confuse!) even more cooks on the options.

  10. Great write-up, Melissa … per usual. I’ve used very little agave myself. However, I do think all agave is not the same, as your data shows. And, for some, I think using agave versus granulated sugar and other sweeteners can offer a transtiion to a much healthier lifestyle. I know folks who have used agave as part of a weight loss plan for example. In those cases, it’s hard to understand how folks who have lost 50 lbs or more and completely transformed their health (lower cholesterol, lower bp, etc.) can be doing a bad thing. I do await more data though. And, of course, it makes sense to limit sweeteners. Finally, I will say that I am leery about many studies. I’ve seen so many done in regard to other foods and gluten, specifically, that are designed with certain outcomes in mind, paid for by those with ulterior motives, etc. So I await more data and I appreciate you sharing it!

    Shirley

  11. greedydave says:

    Melissa,

    I don’t think the agave nectar wave has hit the UK yet, but many thanks for the heads-up on the misinformation (as lo excellently put it) that’s sure to be coming our way.

    Your principle of sticking to honey and maple syrup until the real facts are known can be applied far wider than this debate. Thank goodness I’m not strickened with a sweet tooth, hey?!

    Btw, am I right in saying that inulin is the substance in brassicas and pulses that makes one, let’s say, a little windy?

    GDave

  12. Excellent article! Informative, thorough, and neutral! Well done!

  13. Laura says:

    Great post! I have very mixed feelings about agave and am struggling to really understand its effects on the body and the sugar levels, and on my body in particular. I use it only for baked goods. However, when I went macrobiotic, I switched to using brown rice syrup.

    I’m wondering, what do you know about brown rice syrup as a sweetener? How does it compare to the others in the same way that you broke down agave?

    Happy Friday!

  14. Melissa says:

    Hi all — I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your comments and I read and think about every one of them. I laugh, ponder and have “aha” moments at your wisdom. My intention is to respond to each one individually, but I got behind with this post and am having a hard time catching up.

    I’ve spent all my spare time in the mountains lately, skiing and enjoying all the fresh powder we’ve been experiencing. Seems it’s been snowing non-stop for the past month and that makes for a lot of fun (and worn out legs).

    P.S. GDave, yes, you’re right on with your comment on wind sources.

    :-)

  15. Melissa says:

    FFC,

    I’ll connect with you about all that. I’m not a fan of Splenda, but need more info about your recipe.

    xo

  16. Melissa says:

    Linda,

    I’ve heard a lot of people say the same thing about blood sugar drops. I don’t know because some of the research seems to suggest otherwise. I think when you’ve got a small amount and you’re spreading it out in baked goods that it probably doesn’t have that much impact. As with everything else, use moderation and try to choose the best product. Some of the agave products tested were not what they claimed on the labels. They had added ingredients that weren’t mentioned. Ugh. Wish we could trust people to be honest with their products!

  17. Melissa says:

    Lo — we’ll keep each other posted on this one!

  18. Melissa says:

    Megan,

    I know what you mean. I like the consistency, test and pour-ability of agave better than honey when making salad dressing. I may stick with that and just use very small amounts.

  19. Melissa says:

    Alta,

    Yes, you hit the nail on the head with the word, SPARINGLY. Good reminder!

  20. Melissa says:

    Deb,

    Thanks for that information. I didn’t realize raw stevia was green. I have some that is labeled “raw” and it’s not green so I wonder what the manufacturer means by “raw.” Hmmm?

    I don’t find stevia all that bitter, but a lot of people do. I haven’t done much baking with it, so I’m not too knowledgeable about it.

  21. Melissa says:

    Jen,

    Boy, we were really on the same wavelength with this one. Good post from your end! We should have combined our intentions!

  22. Melissa says:

    Cid,

    Pecan fudge? Sounds delicious. I’ll expect a taste when I come to visit. Will that go with this Pimms drink you and GDave talk about?

    I enjoy the chemistry of playing in the kitchen as well, although I don’t own a sugar thermometer. Yet, anyway.

    Speaking of burnt pans. I don’t have any of those sitting around right now, but I do have a dozen dog-biscuit-tasting muffins cooling on my counter from an early morning experiment.

    More on that one later.
    :-)

  23. Melissa says:

    Karen,

    Love your choice of the words “enlighten and confuse.” I don’t know what to think, especially in light of the fact that I am totally in agreement with you about healthy baking and using sweeteners in moderation. It’s hard to make treats without the appropriate “sweetness” though. Bummer!

  24. Melissa says:

    Shirley,

    Good points, all. You illustrate what Linda was talking about. Boy, we have to figure out what works best for us as individuals and you’re so right about “not all agaves being the same.”

    I await more data as well! I’ll keep you posted.

    xo

  25. Cid says:

    Melissa,

    Will that go with this Pimms drink you and GDave talk about? …. Pimms taken with anything made in my kitchen is practically essential to numb the senses and decrease any potential shocks :)

    Enjoy the outdoors life Melissa, it’s spring and over here, the first real day to get out and do a bit of gardening at last.

    Cid

  26. Melissa says:

    Katrina,

    Thank you! I appreciate your comment.

  27. Melissa says:

    Cid,

    I’m so behind I’m about to abandon my own blog. I’ll be tapping you to take over if I don’t get caught up soon. I’ve been having way too much fun in the high country lately. The skiing has been wonderful, with steady snowfall. I just can’t let all that fresh powder go to waste.

    Okay, I’ll be back to work on my blog soon, but keep that Pimms on hold for later. And I’d love a photo update on what the kitchen looks like now that it’s been “lived in.” Pimms, textiles, Daniel Craig cutouts, Easter trees and all!
    :-)

  28. Cid says:

    Melissa,

    I’m standing by to temporarily take over the gf reins…. poised and ready to tackle what ever comes our way should the need arise :) Let’s hope for the sake of your loyal readers, it’s not for long though or they’ll all end up with DC cutouts and shibori curtains… both of which are, I believe gluten free and highly desirable :)

    When you have a minute I was wondering what you thought of rice bran oil…. it’s new to me but I’m getting good results cooking with it.

    Cid

    p.s. have taken note of your kitchen request and have instructed my personal ‘prop’ team to look lively and get it sorted :)

  29. Melissa says:

    Cid,

    Thank-you. I knew I could count on you to creatively fill in for me. I trust whatever you’d come up with to be entertaining regardless of the subject matter. I have set aside today to catch up on everything, so I do see light at the end of the tunnel (hopefully it’s not an oncoming train).

    Rice bran oil? I’ve heard of it, seen it on occasion, but have never used it. I tend to stick with olive oil or coconut oil as my basic oils. The nice thing about rice bran oil is the high smoking point, so it’s used a lot in Asian cooking (stir fry recipes, etc.).

    See below for some information I had on the oil that I took directly from Dr. Andrew Weil, a specialist in integrative medicine. Word for word, here’s what he has to say.

    Rice bran oil is extracted from the germ and inner husk of rice. It has a mild taste and is popular in Asian cuisine because of its suitability for high-temperature cooking methods such as deep-frying and stir-frying. It is said to be the secret of good tempura.

    Rice bran oil is mostly monounsaturated – a tablespoon contains 7 grams of monounsaturated fat, three of saturated fat and five of polyunsaturated fat. In comparison, a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil contains 11 grams of monounsaturated fat, two grams of saturated fat and one gram of polyunsaturated fat. Rice bran oil also contains components of vitamin E that may benefit health.

    A study from the University of Rochester in New York showed that isolated vitamin fractions in rice bran oil may be useful for cholesterol control, although most of the evidence for this comes from studies in lab animals. In one of these studies, total cholesterol dropped by 42 percent in lab rats fed a concentrated fraction of vitamin E called tocotrienol rich fraction (TRF) extracted from rice bran oil. The animals’ LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels dropped as much as 62 percent after their diets were supplemented with TRF. The study was published in the May, 2005, issue of Food and Chemical Toxicology.

    Earlier studies by the same research team showed that TRF boosts the activity of liver enzymes that clear toxic substances from the liver and reduces or stabilizes liver tumors. The group concluded that long-term use of tocotrienol might reduce overall cancer risk.

    This research might support supplementing with tocotrienols, but I haven’t seen much research on rice bran oil’s contribution to human health. For household use, it doesn’t measure up to olive oil in terms of monounsaturated fat. Its higher smoke point would make it more suitable for high temperature cooking, which I recommend you keep to a minimum in any case. Andrew Weil, M.D.

    That was a little long-winded, but I hope it helps. Plus, I learned something new! Thank you, I appreciate you bringing this up.

    :-)

  30. Cid says:

    Melissa,

    Thanks, I didn’t know very much about this oil before but now all is revealed. Andrew doesn’t seem overly keen but then he hasn’t eaten one of my Yorkshire puddings :) Sadly these aren’t gf but the experimental corner of my kitchen is currently working on just that. Meanwhile what am I going to do with a packet of Carluccio’s Polenta lurking in the cupboard…. any suggestions?

    Cid

  31. Melissa says:

    Cid,

    I didn’t either, so I’ve learned something new as well. Thanks for inspiring me to look into it. I’m curious about it as the “oil” thing is always in the alternative health news. This is good, this is bad, this good one is now bad and so on. Ugh, it’s hard to keep up with.

    Carluccio’s Polenta? Hmmm? I’m not familiar with that, but good polenta is a favorite of mine and it’s also easily gluten-free. I’ll have to think about that. I’m focused on a couple of other things right now as I have an article deadline looming. In the meantime, pass me some of that Yorkshire pudding, would you please!

    :-)

  32. naomi says:

    Fantastic article! Yet another ball in the net for food that is as untampered with as possible. Nothing added, nothing taken away is always the safest, healthiest, most satisfying way to eat. I’m sticking to raw, local, sustainable and delicious honey.
    x x x

  33. “why does a salad cost more than a double cheeseburger?”

    this is the greatest question! a few leaves of lettuce vs a hunk of a cow, hmmmm. which is worth more to you?

    great post. i like a little agave here and there. it tastes nice in tea, and the clear agave (from Ultimate Superfoods) seems to be pretty pure, although it’s definitely still processed.

    I wrote about this topic at length in my Natural & Health Sweeteners booklet and I have to say, there was a lot of murky info coming from the industry I had to wade through, and still could not get a straight answer on questions such as, “what makes the amber color in different “grades” of agave?”… Could be anything from “impurities” to heating byproducts to caramel color.

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