Agave: The Nectar of Deceit.

Via on Oct 18, 2011

Photo: eamonn

This article is adapted from an e-newsletter by Dr. Paul Gannon. It is shared here via the author.

 

Recently I was at a party and someone brought a cake, touting it as sugar free.

Had someone actually come up with an alchemical mix for making stevia work in baking? My husband is a pastry chef and I couldn’t wait to try this. Anything that may be guilt free to suggest to you all. Oohs and ahhs came from all who consumed the morsel of interest.

I finally got a piece—the cake was so sweet I couldn’t have a second bite. I disposed of it without anyone finding out (I hope!). Later I asked the chickadee who brought it what it was made of, and she said, “agave!”

Photo: Dennis Mojado

“Really?” I said, as I thought to myself, “Agave IS sugar” and bit my tongue, realizing that I do like parties, and I do like desserts, and I do want to be invited back. Far be it from me to be Debbie Downer and judge what we put in our mouths—at a party! But here, judgment takes front seat in this context and forum, as your health and informed decisions for it, is a whole nutter butter snack cracker.

So after the sugar shockwave cake, I was curious. Really? Is agave that great? Is it even a little guilt-free?

For years now we have been led to believe that agave nectar is a good, perhaps even a “healthy” choice, as it is labeled as a low glycemic sweetener (some even label it as raw, which would be impossible to create). What I found shocked me, hence what you are reading now. Agave is actually 70-90% fructose. The very highest fructose sweetener on the market to date (barring pure fructose itself). That is even more than the dreaded high fructose corn syrup receiving hype of avoidance in the past few years, which is 55% fructose. Low glycemic? You bet! Glycemic index is based on glucose, another sugar altogether than fructose. Labeling agave ‘low glycemic index’ is like labeling oranges, “apple free”.

Low glycemic index is something that I have talked about many times before. What is it exactly? Simply that the consumption of the food is less apt to raise glucose levels, and hence will mean less insulin released from the pancreas. Extra insulin release is not desirable and one of the biggest reasons to maintain strength in the face of desserts. Keep your insulin levels in better balance, and decrease your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and high triglycerides.

But somehow along the way, as witnessed everyday when I speak to my health conscious patients, agave became synonymous with a ‘healthy choice’ when deciding what to put in your coffee, tea, or pot luck presentation. This most likely occurred from it being labeled as a low glycemic sweetener. One website even says “Rather than increasing body fats, agave nectar assists in the breaking down of body fats through the gallbladder.” Where are the internet police when you need them?!

Photo: Jonathan Cohen

You see, where the caveat is with agave nectar, and other high fructose products like pure fructose, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup is that fructose bypasses insulin. This means that when the fructose gets into your blood, insulin ignores it, and passes the buck onto the liver — you know, that organ tucked under your lower right ribs that takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. (we should do a “Love Your Liver Day” where we don’t have caffeine, alcohol, toxins, or fructose!).

Glucose can be used all over the body on the other hand, so is not as big of a burden to the liver. But remember it causes insulin release. Hello, Mr. Moderation!

High fructose corn syrup and white table sugar both have a about the same 1:1 ratio of glucose to fructose. But there are differences that are not readily pointed out by the people pushing the fructose laden products. The fructose and glucose in HFCS and agave are both isolated as their own molecules, whereas the fructose in white table sugar is bound to glucose by one of those high school chemistry class bonds (covalent or one of its cousins) and needs an enzyme to break down the bond between the fructose and glucose. That means more time for Lucy and Ethel to wrap the chocolates. When it comes to supplemental sugar in things though, I am not sure if that extra time (meaning a more gradual absorption of the sugar into the bloodstream) is anything to hang your hat on. All sugar must be looked at with a crooked eye.

The high fructose containing sweeteners like agave and corn syrup are a big health problem, blocking leptin release (the hormone making you realize you are full) causing one to overeat, along with a resume of rat study and human findings implicating these isolated fructose products to fatty liver and the childhood obesity epidemic.

The Corn Syrup Refiners Association has incidentally put in a request to the FDA to change the name of “high fructose corn syrup” and “corn syrup” to “corn sugars”, a move to bunk the bad rap HFCS is getting for its link to abdominal weight gain amongst other evils like childhood obesity and adult onset diabetes in high school students. Change the name to whatever you want, we won’t be fooled. The sugar industry is now fighting that request, as they don’t want anything to do with the baker formerly know as corn syrup, tainting the sweet name of “sugar.”  

So, is white sugar better than agave?

Let’s say it is the lesser of two evils. The point here, for cute little hippie bakers to the soccer moms of the world, is that agave is not a healthier choice as a sweetener, and not a free dessert, as many have been falsely believing.

On “Love Your Liver Day”, I would choose white table sugar over agave — oh wait, it’s “Love Your Liver Day”, so no sugar at all on this sacred detoxing day. (I anticipate this will be a controversial topic of discussion over milk thistle tea).

Do realize that no sweetener is a health food and something to be used in moderation or avoided completely. Serious health problems will only be made worse by excess consumption of sugars, regardless of the source, whether that be maple syrup, honey, corn syrup, agave or white table sugar. I would recommend that if a person has any liver problems, from hepatitis to cirrhosis, to be adamant about avoiding the fructose sweeteners especially.

Fructose in Real Fruit.

The fructose contained in fruit is part of the levulose molecule, which does not act the same as these isolated fructose sweeteners. It is safer, part of a whole food matrix and absorbed and processed differently than the sweeteners.

The Future.

We have to ask, how did agave get such mass acclaim and arrive as a choice in most coffee shops all of a sudden? If we are to believe that HFCS is in fact the villain causing all those lab rats to become obese, and the cause of all those high school students getting adult onset diabetes from their 48 ounce morning sodas, then what are we to make of agave nectar? Can we extrapolate the studies of HFCS to apply to agave nectar? Well, technically we don’t know. But agave looks worse than HFCS from a chemistry point of view due to its fructose content being so much higher.

But one thing is clear. The higher cost of agave nectar, along with its marketing to people who actually know what glycemic index is, means that this is now being tested in a sort of reverse, socio-economic way. Meaning the more money you make, or the more you shop at health food stores, the more likely you would be to buy agave nectar over white table sugar. As obesity is higher in lower socio-economic classes, its use will most likely be more moderate anyway amongst those who choose it, and most likely never affect health too overtly, allowing it to remain on the island.

I can see my grandmother now. Shaking her head in disapproval of this dissertation with a cute little pursed mouth smile, saying, “It’s a pie! Not like you eat this every day!” Well Gram, you aren’t married to a pastry chef. I just needed to know for myself if the white sugar needs to be replaced by agave. I’ll let him stand his ground on keeping the white sugar in the cupboard, and I’ll stick to more important things like keeping chlorine out of the house.

Got a health question?

Dr. Paul Gannon is starting a weekly Q & A series on elephantjournal.com bringing you advice to your most pestering or important health and nutrition questions. And he really wants to hear from you! Email questions to Dr. Paul Gannon at info [at] drpaulgannon [dot] com.

 

About Dr. Paul Gannon

Dr. Paul Gannon has been leading detoxification programs for groups and individuals for over seven years. His experience working with hundreds of people in this field has lead him to develop the most comprehensive and effective cleanse program available today. Dr. Gannon earned his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, which is recognized worldwide as the leader in education and scientific study for naturopathic medicine. Besides offering phone consultations to accommodate your busy lifestyle, Dr. Gannon has offices in Miami Beach and Aspen. Visit his website.

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48 Responses to “Agave: The Nectar of Deceit.”

  1. __MikeG__ says:

    "Labeling agave ‘low glycemic index’ is like labeling oranges, “apple free”." Genius. I am so going to steal that line.

    I've known for a while now that the push toward agave is based purely on marketing. But I still learned a lot from your post. Thanks for this.

  2. So, so interesting! And I agree whole-heartedly. I love what you wrote: "Do realize that no sweetener is a health food and something to be used in moderation or avoided completely". This is what I also try to convey to my clients. Sadly, everyone is hopping on the Agave band-wagon and using the claims as an excuse to pour it all over everything!! Sugar is sugar! Plain and simple. Thanks for the article :)

  3. figg says:

    what are some good alternatives?

  4. Good to know! I had heard mixed things & this clarifies a lot. I prefer honey or maple syrup for baking anyway!

  5. Deborah says:

    Love the title, love the funny story in the beginning! Have passed this on to my fiance who uses a lot of agave. What's the best to use in moderation? Honey? White sugar? Sugar in the raw?

  6. First, let me say, that of all of the negative agave blogs (I call them blogs because this one, like all the others, fails to cite any, underline ANY, scientific evidence), he actually does know quite a bit of the science behind how sugar works in the body. For that, I appreciate his comments.

    Second, I am really dismayed that the first poster called the analogy about apples and oranges "genius." This is one man's opinion and he doesn't cite a single peer reviewed journal. That can't be what real scientists would call genius. Cleverly worded maybe, but if that can past muster for genius, then where does sliced bread fall on your bell curve? Please don't take his comment about the glycemic index as word. Just do a simple search on line. Educate yourself without the interference of others.

    • __MikeG__ says:

      Truly arrogant reply Anson. You do not know me and you do not have the first clue as to whether or not I have educated myself without the interference of others. The fact is that I have done web based research on agave and came to the conclusion that agave is overrated. But my greatest concern is how agave is marketed as being better and more healthy than other types of sugar.

      As for genius, I still love the orange/apples line. And once again your arrogance shines through. On my bell curve sliced bread rates much higher than your snide and desperate comments.

  7. The reality is this, sugar is discretionary calories. The author says as much. No matter where you get your calories from, sugar should not be a major source, even a minor source. Sugar is a treat. Have a soda with your meal (one soda) or a cookie, ect., but don't have both at the same time. The author also talks about how some people are snowed into thinking that agave nectar does not have sugar, and I agree with him about this. It has sugar, OF COURSE IT DOES. The name itself says as much "agave NECTAR." By definition the word "nectar" means: a sugary fluid secreted by plants. So again, he and I are in agreement.

  8. What I don't agree with him about are the following.

    Comparing high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, and agave on the same level, is really misleading. They may all be sugar, but they are not used in consumer packaged goods the same way. Corn Syrup (Also known as karo syrup) is pure glucose (aka dextrose)) which is great for making candy, but it has little use in consumer packaged goods because pure glucose is not nearly as sweet as what people expect. So they came up with this process called "enzymatic hydrolysis" which changed 35% of the glucose in corn syrup into fructose." It was cheap, and easy and it made is so sweet that with the tariffs on cane sugar and the subsidies on corn, it was the natural alternative.

  9. Stephen Anson says:

    This is the REAL reason that HFCS is responsible for the obesity epidemic in America. Not because HFCS itself will make you fat, but the economics of HFCS do. Prior to the mid 1980's, restaurants across the United States used a system of fountain soda dispensing called "pre-mix". The soda was delivered by Coke or Pepsi in 5-gallon kegs and hooked up to the fountain much the way beer is dispensed. The kegs were cumbersome, took up too much storage space, and cost a lot of money. As a consequence, if you ordered two sodas, you were charged for two sodas.

  10. Stephen Anson says:

    Then came the next phase of soda dispensation. "Post mix" was devised in the mid 1980's. The syrup in its concentrated form would be delivered to the restaurants who would then have the equipment to mix it 1:5 with carbonated water. This eliminated 90% of the overheard with delivering soda to restaurants. As a result, restaurants could start offering free refills to attract customers. Think about it, a 32oz Coke has nearly 400 calories (depending on ice) if a person gets even one refill, then they have received nearly half of their required calories for a day. HFCS doesnt make people fat, as the author alludes, cheap and easy access to sugar does.

  11. Stephen Anson says:

    If you look at any charts showing how Americans become obese over years, you will see that it started at the exact same time that restaurants (aka McDonalds) started offering free refills on soda.

    The second issue I have is that comparing HFCS, agave, and cane sugar on an apples for apples basis misses the point. Because agave contains more fructose, it is necessarily sweeter. He says as much in the introduction to his article where he talks about the dessert being too sweet. OF COURSE, because agave is sweeter so you need less. And therein lies the problem with his entire argument. On average, agave is 30% sweeter to the taste than HFCS and 40% sweeter to the taste than cane sugar, so you don't need as much.

    Let me say that again because the author does not understand this point.

    YOU DON'T NEED AS MUCH!

  12. Stephen Anson says:

    And as a result, the finished product does not have as much fructose as it would if it were made with HFCS (Which you cant buy in any consumer marketplace so it is kind of pointless to talk about) nor does it have as much fructose as if it were made with cane sugar. But don't take my word for it. Unlike the author I encourage you to do your own research. Pick up a can of Coke or Pepsi and you will find 35g of sugar in each 12oz can. But then go pick up a can of "naturally" sweetened soda." Like Hansens or Blue Sky or even the 365 brand at Whole foods. They will have at least 40g and probably more. There are

    some flavors that have 47g of sugar for 12oz!!!

  13. Stephen Anson says:

    On another note, and this is the one that REALLY bothers me. The author has his science right about sucrose (cane sugar) being a disacchairde with a weak bond between glucose and fructose. And he is right about it needing to be broken by an enzyme (though there are other ways to break it but lets stay focused) what he doesn't say is that your own saliva is equipped with the enzymes needed to break the bond. At best, he didn't really read what he wrote and just typed it in a fury and sent it out (Which is something that real doctors wouldn't do (But of course, what is he a doctor of? If you try to figure it out on his website you wont, I looked)) At worst, he is lying.

  14. Tobye Hillier yogi tobye says:

    Although you speak the truth, you've kinda made yourself look like a clown. I think maybe you had a little too much sugar this morning….

  15. Jason Lightfoot says:

    @SA, Well at least you got his attention, you can now get information about the author, not sure where it leads but it is there to follow!

    Dr. Gannon earned his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, which is recognized worldwide as the leader in education and scientific study for naturopathic medicine.

    Besides offering phone consultations to accommodate your busy lifestyle, Dr. Gannon has offices in Miami Beach and Aspen. Appointments can be made by calling (305) 491-9209, or by emailing at info@drpaulgannon.com

  16. Nicole says:

    Paul,
    Fun article! Thanks for the information. I can't seem to figure out why agave continues to have this magical halo, despite the high fructose levels. I've spoken with people who run cafes and written emails advocating for a different sweetener, but agave seems to be the sugar of choice. I imagine someday (in the near future?) it will quietly disappear. In that case, what is your preference?

  17. Sej says:

    We use frozen-then-thawed bananas as sweeteners.

  18. RawDude says:

    @Nicole, just wondering why you think agave will someday quietly disappear? Agave tastes really good, and offers a sweetener choice for people who don’t want, or can’t have spikes in their insulin levels. The obvious element in this discussion that is glossed over is consumption size. Uses in moderation, agave does not cause any metabolic issues. If anyone should disagree, please cite a scientific study (there isn’t any, I’ve done the research). Most people that are choosing agave understand that it is a caloric sweetener (it's right on the label that most health-conscious folks read closely), and also get that they are reducing their overall sugar calories. Will some abuse it and pour it all over everything? Probably, but really, come on. Everything in moderation. Too much water can kill. But what shouldn't be over-looked, is that agave nectar tastes really good as a syrup, a sweetener, and in baking. So people like it, contrary to the anti-agave crusaders who skirt the real issues with HFCS. People have a choice, and they may choose honey, or stevia, or agave, or plain table sugar. Each has a different impact on our bodies. Funny thing to me is that I know a lot of super healthy people who love agave nectar, and I haven't seen one of them become fat or complain about health issues that keep recirculating by the anti-agave naturopaths who are selling lines of products. Stephen Anson's insight and perspective should not get lost because you like and respect the author.

  19. Nancy says:

    Sugar is sugar. Too much sugar is too much sugar.
    Marshmallows are a low-fat food.
    Fried pork rinds are very low in carbs.
    You can put any spin you want on any food you want.
    Fat isn't bad. Carb/sugar isn't bad. Protein isn't bad.
    Too many calories is bad.

    I'm one of those mutants who finds nearly everything that is sweetened to be too sweet. If I eat too much sugar, I feel mildly nauseated afterwards. If you offer me a chocolate chip cookie or a fresh mozzarella ball, I'll take the mozzarella any day (uh oh, the militant vegans are all about to give me the thumbs down!) So you can take what I say with a grain of salt. My opinion is this: We should all get used to things being less sweet! Really, overuse of sweetener (just like overuse of salt) actually hides the wonderful flavors in the foods we eat. So, instead of fighting about which sweeteners to use, maybe we should eat dessert less often, eat smaller desserts and eat food that is less sweet. Smaller portions taste better, anyway. (Except for fresh mozzarella :-) )

  20. EY says:

    Wait, the guy who’s business is selling agave products (Stephen Anson) has a problem with an article pointing our misinformation about agave? Now you tell me who has a dog in this fight…

    • Diego says:

      He may be trying to straighten out the misinformation about agave. Seems he may have some more knowledge about agave that should be considered. We shouldn't dismiss him because he supports agave and uses it in his products.

  21. RawDude says:

    EY – you have hit upon the issue that plagues having a true discussion about agave. Anytime anyone who is an expert in working with agave (i.e. they've put their reputation on the line for agave via their business) speaks their opinion, they are discounted as having a financial motive, and therefore, they are lying or at best, unreliable. If I want to really find out how a cow is milked, I will certainly listen to a farmer's point of view.The opposite is true, though. There seem to be so many nay-sayers who are flat out wrong, but because they are "naturopaths" or whatever, they are given more credibility in these blogs. The facts are clear, but the naturopaths have ignored the science, and taken the easy way out to create a sense of inside knowledge, but the reality is that these guys are the ones who benefit from the controversy, regardless of how many honest, hard working farmers, families and entrepreneurs are slandered. Stephen Anson (no, I don't know him personally) has direct knowledge, and science that he's willing to back up – this guy owns a beverage company and he actually gives you his phone # etc. and yet you side with the author who (I suppose) would never put themselves out there personally like Stephen just did. Bravo, Stephen. Even the author admits that in moderation, there likely is no health issue (because there are several studies that support this), so I beg you to ask yourself, why does the author (and other authors as well) title this article with the fear-mongering "Agave: the Nectar of Deceit" ??? Yah… just pointing out the obvious.

  22. Don says:

    Dr. Gannon, please do not say corn syrup is high in fructose. It is misleading and false. If you mean HFCS than say HFCS not just corn syrup. Even though most of your information is correct your blatant continual use of corn syrup does bring to question your research methods.

  23. gsrinc says:

    So, if Agave nectar is not good for us diabetics, then what about Stevia? I am growing a Stevia plant in my garden and have plucked a bunch of leaves and I am drying them in my window sill. Stevia is healthy, isn't it? I use Stevia every day, which I bought from Mothers store.

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  25. SugarStory says:

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  37. Lisa says:

    I love the taste of agave in a cup of coffee with a little cream, and I only need a little bit because it is so sweet…way less than if I were using sugar. I don't see anything wrong with it in moderation.

  38. Lynne Wallace says:

    Science with a side of misogyny anyone? Listen up you dumbass "cute hippie bakers" and "soccer moms", the man has spoken.

  39. Victoria Young says:

    MY EXPERIENCE: Agave is FABULOUS!!!

    Although I appreciate your research, I find the results reported here skewed.

    I have eaten 100 percent organic food for seven years–not an easy task. The point of mentioning this is that my physical body reports to me immediately when it is off balance.

    Agave by Wholesome Foods is an amazing product for me–I am my own personal proof. Corn syrup has long been commandeered by the GMO corn crooks of America and is not even worth mentioning here. Sadly, it is inedible.

    White sugar (read “Sugar Blues” for its history) would make me deathly sick –I would get a headache and hurl it up–and my face would be freekin with at least one huge zit within 24 hrs after a few bites.

    To compare my personal excellent results of the adrenalin stability provided by Agave versus the crash and burn after effect of sugar–even organic –is more absurd than the apple-free orange. I have 7 kids to observe!! The Agave wins with 5 Stars everytime.

    I make pies with Agave–the 3 yr old twins and 4 yr old eat these with delight and never miss a beat of going right back to harmony–unlike any other sweetener.

    In 1978 I stopped all intake of regular sugar, and only gave my four children honey and maple syrup as sweeteners. The results of my small subject group of 7 (4 children and 3 grandchildren), actually 8 including myself , is that Agave is a sweet blessing. Excellent!!

    It is nothing like fructose and I am here to say I fully disagree with your argument against it.

    Proof in the pudding? Absolutely!!

  40. Amy says:

    What are your thoughts on date sugar?

  41. RawDude says:

    Thanks for sharing a voice that is missing in the anti-agave bandwagon. Many of us who have done the research and visited the production facilities first hand are in the minority when we share our knowledge or experience. Seems shooting down agave is a trending sport on these blogs. Never anyone shooting back. : ) Most of these "agave is a fraud" articles strike me as quite condescending, as if everyone who uses agave is an idiot that has been duped by the big agave marketing guys. We know agave has calories. We know it is not a "superfood". It is simply a low glycemic sweetener from the juice of the agave plant that happens to make amazing margaritas! Use it in moderation and enjoy life, people. This line from the author is spot-on though, "…its use will most likely be more moderate anyway amongst those who choose it, and most likely never affect health too overtly, allowing it to remain on the island." Yes, exactly! Agave will not be US Govt subsidized, GMO-pumped, super cheap and in every type of food, drink, ketchup, etc. like HFCS.

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