Is agave nectar good? Is agave nectar bad? Is it healthy?
Earlier this week a reader emailed me, seeking an answer to the classic question: Is agave nectar (also sometimes called agave syrup) good for you? She pointed out that she’d done a search for agave nectar on this site and only turned up two entries. In one, I’d said to avoid it. In another, I mentioned that I’d used agave nectar while experimenting with kombucha and didn’t enjoy the results.
So, she concluded: “Why, if agave nectar is a natural sweetener, should it not be used? What about it is bad? I’ve been preferring it to honey and maple syrup on my waffles, pancakes, and yogurt.”
I realized then that I needed to post a definitive guide to agave nectar, answering the question once and for all. This is it.
Agave Nectar: Good or Bad?
The short answer to that reader’s question is simple: almost all commercially available agave nectar is not a “natural sweetener.” Plus, agave nectar has more concentrated fructose in it than high fructose corn syrup. Now, let’s get into the details.
Agave nectar is not a natural sweetener.
Once upon a time, I picked up a jar of “Organic Raw Blue Agave Nectar” at my grocery store. It was the first time I’d ever seen the stuff in real life, and the label looked promising. After all, words like “organic,” “raw,” and “all natural” should mean something.
Sadly, agave nectar is neither truly raw, nor is it all natural.
Based on the labeling, I could picture native peoples creating their own agave nectar from the wild agave plants. Surely, this was a traditional food, eaten for thousands of years.
It is not.
Native Mexican peoples do make a sort of sweetener out of the agave plant. It’s called miel de agave, and it’s made by boiling the agave sap for a couple of hours Think of it as the Mexican version of authentic Canadian maple syrup (source).
But this is not what most so-called “agave nectar” is. According to one popular agave nectar manufacturer, “Agave nectar is a newly created sweetener, having been developed in the 1990s.”
Agave nectar is not, like miel de agave, made from the sap of the agave plant. Instead, it’s made from the starchy root bulb. The root bulb is pressed, and the starches in the bulb are converted into syrup using chemicals, high heat, and enzymatic reactions in a process similar to how high fructose corn syrup is made (source 1, source 2).
Unfortunately, this results in a highly refined product that’s nothing at all like the traditional food from which it’s derived.
Agave nectar is dangerously high in fructose.
Because the starches in the raw bulb are mostly inulin (long carbohydrate chains of fructose molecules), the finished syrup is abnormally high in fructose — usually around 85% fructose (source).
Compare that to the typical fructose content of high fructose corn syrup (55%)!
Why are the high levels of fructose found in agave nectar bad for you?
Fructose, unlike glucose (which can be metabolized by every cell in your body), can only be metabolized in significant amounts in your liver! This can cause your liver to be overworked, contributing to Type 2 Diatbetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and insulin resistance (source 1, source 2, source 3).
What’s more, concentrated levels of fructose can increase belly fat and raise the levels of oxidized LDL in your bloodstream (source).
Because fructose is digested in your liver, it is immediately turned into triglycerides or stored body fat. Since it doesn’t get converted to blood glucose like other sugars, it doesn’t raise or crash your blood sugar levels (they’ve studied this in mice). Hence the claim that it is safe for diabetics.
But it isn’t.
That’s because fructose inhibits leptin levels — the hormone your body uses to tell you that you’re full. In other words, fructose makes you want to eat more. Besides contributing to weight gain, it also makes you gain the most dangerous kind of fat (source).
This has been verified in numerous studies. Dr. Stephan Guyenet wrote an insightful summary of this one published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation:
The investigators divided 32 overweight men and women into two groups, and instructed each group to drink a sweetened beverage three times per day. They were told not to eat any other sugar. The drinks were designed to provide 25% of the participants’ caloric intake. That might sound like a lot, but the average American actually gets about 25% of her calories from sugar! That’s the average, so there are people who get a third or more of their calories from sugar. In one group, the drinks were sweetened with glucose, while in the other group they were sweetened with fructose.
After ten weeks, both groups had gained about three pounds. But they didn’t gain it in the same place. The fructose group gained a disproportionate amount of visceral fat, which increased by 14%! Visceral fat is the most dangerous type; it’s associated with and contributes to chronic disease, particularly metabolic syndrome, the quintessential modern metabolic disorder (see the end of the post for more information and references). You can bet their livers were fattening up too.
The good news doesn’t end there. The fructose group saw a worsening of blood glucose control and insulin sensitivity. They also saw an increase in small, dense LDL particles and oxidized LDL, both factors that associate strongly with the risk of heart attack and may in fact contribute to it. Liver synthesis of fat after meals increased by 75%. If you look at table 4, it’s clear that the fructose group experienced a major metabolic shift, and the glucose group didn’t. Practically every parameter they measured in the fructose group changed significantly over the course of the 9 weeks. It’s incredible.(source)
Back to our original question — Agave Nectar: Good or Bad?
The conclusion is clear. Agave nectar is bad for you. It’s not traditional, not natural, highly refined, and contains more concentrated fructose than high fructose corn syrup.
“But,” you ardent agave nectar enthusiasts say, “agave nectar has a low glycemic index. I’m a diabetic, and it’s the only sweetener I can use!”
To that I say that the dangerous effects of consuming agave nectar have less to do with its glycemic index and more to do with it being a concentrated source of fructose.
Concentrated fructose is not found in fruit, or anywhere else in nature.
When the sugar occurs in nature, it is often called it is accompanied by naturally-occurring enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin. Concentrated fructose, on the other hand, is a man-made sugar created by the refining process.
What natural sweeteners do I recommend?
If you’re interested in what other traditional sweeteners are out there that are actually natural, check out My Natural Sweeteners of Choice.
Stay awesome, my friends!