Raise your hand if you avoid soda, candy, and high fructose corn syrup?
Everyone, right? I wish I could see all your hands raising right now.
By now, we know to avoid this kind of sugar because we’ve learned how excess sugar causes trouble for everything from our digestive systems to our brains. We question artificial sweeteners and keep trying to find better ingredients from Mother Nature to quench our sweet cravings.
Battling my way through the sugar crusade, I thought I found my champion in agave nectar.
I heard that agave nectar was an all-natural sweetener that didn’t cause blood sugar levels to spike and was even low on the GI index.
I started recommending agave nectar to all of my friends and family, and even my diabetic clients.
Oh how I was wrong.
It turns out that agave isn’t the winner we all thought it was; in fact, I think agave is just another deadly sugar replacement.
What is Agave Anyway?
You’ll find this spiky, blue succulent in the southwestern part of the US, all throughout Mexico, and even in the tropics of South America.
A common misconception is that agave plants are related to cacti and aloe, probably because of their similar appearance. However, agave is more closely related to lilies and yucca, a starchy potato-like veggie.
Indigenous people of these regions used agave for centuries because they believed it had healing properties. They extracted the leaves’ pulp like sugarcane, and they even used the leaves’ spiky needles for sewing.
Oh yeah, and one other thing.
To produce agave’s most commercial product, “distillers bake [blue] agave in steam ovens or autoclaves until the starch is converted into sugars”.
If you can make alcohol from something, chances are it’s sugary or starchy (which will be digested as sugar anyway). So clearly the agave plant has some naturally sweet properties.
How the Ancients Used Agave
No, the agave syrup we see on the store shelves is not how the ancient people used agave. Not even close.
When the ancients used agave, they boiled the sap of the plant for hours until it reduced to a syrup-like consistency.
Rami Nagel says that the agave back-in-the-day was very dark and thick, with a strong flavor and unique smell. This concentrated syrup also had minerals such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, and sodium, plus amino acids. It’s no wonder that people used to think this stuff had medicinal qualities.
However, just like most medicine, agave’s intense flavor probably didn’t taste very good to most people with modern taste buds, because we’re all so used to processed ingredients.
So how did this agave become the agave nectar we all know?
Agave Nectar in Commercial Production
Agave nectar doesn’t really exist; it just sounds healthier than agave syrup, which is too close to the evil high fructose corn syrup we all despise.
Agave started being produced commercially in the 90s, when manufacturers worked out a highly complicated refining plan to make it a global hit.
Manufacturers age agave plants for 7-14 years. When the plants reach maturity, the leaves are cut off so the starchy part of the plant, which is the core and roots, is easily harvested. The juice is squeezed from the pulp of the agave, filtered, and heated to separate into simple sugars.
Once they get to this stage, manufacturers further concentrate the liquid into a syrup that’s just a little thinner than commercially processed honey. You’ll find varieties in the store that range from light amber color like honey, to dark brown hues like molasses.
I always thought the different colors of agave were like the variety of colors you find when you buy honey, which typically represents the type of blossoms the honeybees found their nectar from.
According to Russ Bianchi: “Due to poor quality control in the agave processing plants in Mexico, sometimes the fructose gets burned after heat treatment above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, thus creating a darker, or amber color”.
So agave’s color variation stems from mistakes. Awesome. That’s exactly what I like to see in the food I eat— mistakes and poor oversight.
However, mistakes aside, this whole process of converting carbs to syrup isn’t easy. In fact, manufacturers have to use a ton of caustic acids, chemicals, and clarifiers to make it presentable for sale. This process is very similar to how commercially produced high fructose corn syrup is made.
Dr. Mercola has a partial list of the chemicals used to make agave syrup:
- Activated charcoal
- Cationic and ionic resins
- Sulfuric and/or hydrofluoric acid
- Inulin enzymes
I bet you didn’t imagine that any of these were in a product labeled natural, raw, or organic, right?
Plus, the syrup has to be heated, which basically destroys any kind of nutritional value that the the raw agave plant may have initially had.
So what happens when you refine agave this much?
Well, you’re left with a syrup that’s so sweet it rivals high fructose corn syrup.
Is Agave Any Better than High Fructose Corn Syrup?
Agave is not a lower calorie sweetener; just like regular table sugar, it has about 16 calories per teaspoon.
But agave is mainly fructose.
About 50% of the carbs in agave come from inulin, a complex carbohydrate that’s made of fructose molecules.
Are you surprised about that?
Here are some numbers for you to think about.
- Honey is about 40% fructose
- Regular table sugar is 50% fructose, 50% glucose
- High fructose corn syrup is about 55% fructose, 45% glucose
- Agave nectar can be 70-90% fructose
I’ll give you a minute to take a gasp.
That’s not hard math, that’s total deception staring us in the face. Agave’s not only bad for you, it’s worse for you than high fructose corn syrup!
How Does the Fructose in Agave Affect Our Bodies?
Fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar levels because it doesn’t go directly into the bloodstream like glucose, or regular sugar. This fact is why agave has been promoted to diabetics and has been included in new low-sugar products.
Glucose is able to be absorbed and used by every cell in our bodies. Our bodies even produce glucose because we need it for our bodies to function properly.
However, our livers are the only organ that can metabolize fructose. And as you can imagine, your liver can only handle so much fructose before it becomes overworked. When it can’t process the sugar, it turns the fructose directly into fat.
Even though fructose doesn’t raise insulin levels, it does increase insulin resistance, which many argue to be the worse of the two evils.
It’s normal for our insulin levels to rise and fall. But when our insulin levels are always high, our bodies start developing a resistance to insulin.
You guys remember what insulin does, right? It’s that hormone responsible for getting the sugar from our bloodstream into our cells so it can be used for energy. A resistance to insulin means the cells won’t allow insulin to do its job, leaving tons of sugar floating in the bloodstream, causing high blood sugar levels.
The pancreas senses that the cells aren’t getting enough sugar, so it produces more insulin to get the job done. These high blood sugar and insulin levels raise our risk for developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney problems, disorders of vision, nerve damage, and a slew of other metabolic disorders.
When our bodies metabolize fructose, it breaks down in our livers just like alcohol— which is why some people develop a “beer belly” or lower belly pooch when they have too much fructose in their diet.
Animal studies have proven that when animals are given excessive amounts of fructose, they develop cirrhosis of the liver and even have fat deposits form in their livers, just like what happens to the livers of alcoholics.
Fructose Causes Insulin Resistance
It doesn’t take that much fructose to become insulin resistant. In fact, it only takes a little over 25 g of fructose per day.
When you consume excessive amounts of fructose, your body will:
- Raise triglycerides
- Increase LDL levels, or bad cholesterol
- Decrease HDL levels, or good cholesterol
- Raise blood pressure
- Rapidly gain weight in your abdomen
As the Mayo Clinic explains: “Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in your blood. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides. The triglycerides are stored in your fat cells. Later, hormones release triglycerides for energy between meals”.
In one study, obese participants drinking beverages sweetened with fructose during their meals had blood triglyceride levels 200 times higher than those of other obese participants drinking beverages sweetened with glucose.
People like to argue that you can find naturally occurring fructose in fruit and starchy veggies, so fructose can’t be that bad.
Consuming fructose from fruits and veggies means that fiber, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and antioxidants also come along for the digestion ride. Our bodies can handle processing the small amounts of fructose typically found in natural food sources like fruits and veggies because it’s not that much.
But synthetic fructose created in labs does not have the same molecules as natural fructose, plus, it lacks any sort of nutritional value found in fruits and starchy veggies.
Fructose is also responsible for elevated uric acid levels. When you have high uric acid levels, your body will experience “chronic, low-level inflammation, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, arthritis, and premature aging”.
Fructose May Lead to Cancer
Besides the fact that high fructose corn syrup may drive obesity and type 2 diabetes, studies completed on rats have determined that it also leads to tumor growth and the spread of cancerous cells.
Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology states that having insulin resistance forces the body to secrete lots of insulin and a growth hormone similar to insulin. This growth factor in overweight or obese women with chronically elevated insulin levels is “associated with increased breast cancer mortality”.
Your Body’s Battle with Fructose
“Between 1970 and 2000, the per capita consumption of high fructose corn syrup in the U.S. increased from less than one pound per person to over sixty pounds yearly”.
That’s astonishing to me!
Cheap ol’ fructose is hiding in nearly all processed or packaged foods nowadays, so you really need to pay attention to make sure you’re not eating that 25 g every day and ruining your health.
Our bodies were never designed to process the concentrated amounts of fructose found in high fructose corn syrup and agave. However, sugar and fructose are both highly addictive and very destructive at the same time.
When you let a lot of fructose into your body, it automatically starts destroying your health. Fructose creates its own paths in our system and the more we eat it, the more those pathways are used and the better our bodies become at absorbing fructose. And as we already know, absorbing more of this only leads to more damage.
Well, I’d tell you to cut out sugar completely, but I know that will fall on deaf ears. And, I’m including myself here too.
But honestly, if you decide to radically decrease your body’s addiction to sugar and go cold turkey, you will go through withdrawal symptoms at first, but you will also reduce those sugar cravings until they’re practically gone. Seriously.
In the mean time, there are some other sweeteners out there on the market that are much safer than agave.
There Are Better Sweeteners…Promise
Even though agave nectar, ahem syrup, isn’t the natural sweetener we were all duped into trusting and believing, there are others that aren’t as sneaky and are just as effective.
As the Real Food Forager shares: “Raw honey, preferably from a beekeeper in your area is the best sweetener”. Lighter colored honey is typically more mild and darker honeys are considered more robust. “Raw [100% pure] honey that has not been pasteurized, clarified, or filtered—provided it is of the highest nutritional quality and safety—is your best choice”.
However, if you’re going the vegan route, you probably want to avoid honey since it’s made by cute little honeybees.
That’s totally ok, you can use pure maple syrup or even Medjool dates to sweeten your delights. Darker maple syrups have lower fructose levels and also include minerals like iron, calcium, zinc, manganese, and potassium.
Personally, I love making a version of these homemade energy bars I found on Wellness Mama; all you need to do is throw some Medjool dates into a food processor with some rolled oats, hemp hearts, chia seeds, almond butter, and dark chocolate chips to create a “dough”. Then I put them in the fridge to firm up and take them with me when I’m on the go.
Delicious, healthy, and portable – that’s my kind of snacking philosophy.
And don’t forget about pure stevia!
Stevia is a great option to sweeten everything from baked treats to coffee and green tea. But you have to make sure you’re buying pure stevia or else you’ll be in the same overly processed boat as you are when you buy agave syrup.
As Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health says: “Agave is almost all fructose, a highly processed sugar with great marketing”.
Agave is not a natural sweetener, it’s just synthetic fructose masquerading around as a pretender. Thanks to the millions of dollars agave companies have spent trying to convince us of its greatness – it’s certainly worked!
Personally, I feel really dumb for believing the hype of agave early on. But I’d rather know the whole truth so I can stop sabotaging my plan for healthy sugar consumption before it’s too late.