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!”
“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?!
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.
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.