Since you’re reading this, chances are you consume as little refined sugar as possible – if you even consume it at all. But what about agave syrup (also known as agave nectar)? That’s completely different…isn’t it? If you’re anything like the average raw food fan you’ll be regularly adding agave to your recipes in the belief that it’s a natural (and therefore healthy) sweetener. You’ll be buying and eating foods that contain agave without thinking for a moment that these foods may be as bad for you as the processed foods you used to eat in their place. You may even believe that agave has “beneficial properties”.
When raw agave came on the market six years ago, it sounded like the answer to every sugar-loving raw foodist’s prayers. It is mainly fructose, which is both much sweeter than glucose, and much lower on the Glycaemic Index. So here at last was a sweetener that was sugary enough to satisfy the sweetest of tooths, yet that would not cause those undesirable blood sugar spikes. Better still it had the delicious consistency of a runny, easily pourable syrup that worked like a dream in a huge range of recipes – and yet it was completely natural! It sounded almost too good to be true – and there was a reason for that.
Having looked into agave, we now believe it is very far from the health food it’s so often marketed as. It is, in our opinion, a synthetic, chemically refined sugar with the ability to seriously harm health if consumed regularly and long term.
In fact, all things considered, in our opinion agave is no better than regular refined sugar. We’ll go a step further – we’re no longer even convinced that the lower-quality brands are any better than high-fructose corn syrup. We realize what a shocking statement that is, but we believe that if you read this article to the end and then do some research of your own on this topic, you will be similarly unconvinced. And since we wouldn’t sell regular sugar, we can’t continue to sell agave.
In reality, agave syrup is a relatively new product, having been developed only during the 1990s. It is derived principally from inulin, a polysaccharide (or starch) found in the Mexican agave plant. The inulin is converted into concentrated, refined fructose (a monosaccharide, or simple sugar) through a process called hydrolyzation.
As such, an even more accurate name for this product would be “high-fructose agave syrup” – or even “hydrolyzed high-fructose agave syrup”. Not quite so appetizing when we call it what it is, is it?
Regular agave is heat-processed and its production can involve a long list of manmade chemicals. There are persistent rumours in the raw market that it is not possible to achieve either the texture or the taste of agave syrup without processing it at heats well above the “raw” threshold.
But this is not necessarily true, as there is an alternative method which produces agave syrup at low heats. It uses enzymes derived from the mould Aspergillus niger to hydrolyze the inulin into fructose.
We have found no proof that any of the agave on the market that is being sold as raw is anything but. However, we can’t 100% vouch for raw agave syrup’s “rawness” either, as we haven’t looked into this particular issue in any depth and nor do we plan to, as we now believe that agave is so far from healthy that whether or not it is raw is beside the point.
Most of the agave syrup on sale in the US and Europe is imported from Mexico. You might assume that there are strict controls in place to ensure that any imported goods are what they claim on the label before allowing them to go on sale as not only food products, but also health food products. So you may be shocked to hear that a decade ago, the “certified organic agave nectar” of one large US importer was discovered to be laced with a cheaper concentrated sweetener – none other than high-fructose corn syrup.
There is no guarantee that this isn’t going on in parts of the agave industry today, but let’s leave that concern aside and assume that all the agave being sold today is indeed exactly what it says on the tin – because if it is, that alone is reason enough to stop consuming it. To illustrate why, let’s take a moment to compare it to high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is as reviled as a junky, processed, health-harming sweetener as agave is celebrated as a high-quality, natural, healthy one, so surely they must be two very different things?
You’d think so, but in reality there are some strong similarities. They are both processed and concentrated sweeteners and they are also similar in chemical terms. The HFCS used in soft drinks averages 55% fructose and 45% glucose – exactly the same ratio as the lower-fructose agave on the market. For comparison, refined white sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Agave can have much higher percentages of fructose – anything up to the 90s. But so can HFCS! The form of HFCS commonly used in packaged diet foods is 90% fructose.
Much of the raw agave nectar we have come across clocks in at the 85% fructose mark. Maybe you think of fructose as “fruit sugar” and therefore think it is a “good” sugar. We’ve been there, thought that. But the fructose in fruit and the fructose in agave, HFCS and other processed sweeteners are two entirely different things.
Fructose is only good for us if consumed in moderate quantities and bound up with fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients – i.e. the way it appears in nature, and the way we consume fructose when we eat whole fruits. Refined fructose can have a number of extremely harmful effects in the body, though people vary greatly in how much they can consume before these effects - which are often hidden for many years - start to manifest. Specifically, it has been linked with insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, accelerated aging, high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries and liver inflammation.
First, most of the fructose in fruit is in the form of L-fructose or levulose. The fructose in HFCS is a different form – D-fructose – only tiny amounts of which occur in fruit. D-fructose is not converted to blood glucose in any quantity, so it does not elevate blood glucose levels. This is what has earned agave its classification as a low-GI and therefore diabetic-friendly sweetener.
But the fact that refined fructose is not converted into glucose is very far from being a good thing. Instead, it is primarily converted into triglycerides and body fat – which is why fructose raises blood triglyceride levels much higher than glucose does. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that obese subjects who drank fructose-sweetened drinks with meals for a day had triglyceride levels almost 200% higher than obese subjects who drank glucose-sweetened drinks during the same period.
Chronic high triglyceride levels translate into insulin resistance (a precursor for type-2 diabetes), inflammation and hardening of the arteries. In fact, many scientists believe triglycerides are a more important marker for heart disease than cholesterol.
Excessive fructose consumption has also been linked with obesity. It doesn’t induce the same level of satisfaction as glucose because it doesn’t trigger appetite inhibitors in the same way, and studies have shown that both animals and people consume more of foods that are sweetened with fructose than of those sweetened with glucose.
And there’s more... If you’re eating raw or high raw, one of the reasons may be the well-known rejuvenative effects of this diet. We’re sure you already know that consuming too much refined sugar accelerates aging. Well, as we’ve already demonstrated, agave syrup is a refined sugar. But because of its sky-high fructose content, when it comes to aging, agave may be even worse than refined white sugar. It has been scientifically established that fructose creates 8-10 times the advanced glycation end products (AGEs) as glucose. This is a huge topic, but in very simple terms, AGEs are compounds that age the tissues of the body, both inside and out.
Raw agave is certainly a food that will cause a high level of AGE formation – once again because of that 85% refined free fructose content. As an aside, the extent to which the fructose in whole fruits does the same is still under debate. However, many scientists studying fructose and AGE formation concur that fruit is not a food we need to avoid, if only because the fructose in fruit is so much less concentrated than in refined sweeteners. It is also the natural L-fructose, bound with fibre and nutrients, which will limit any negative effects.
Yet another problem with refined free fructose is its impact on the liver. Glucose goes directly into the bloodstream so that our tissues and organs can use it as energy, with only around a third passing through the liver, but all fructose must be metabolized in the liver. The livers of laboratory animals fed large amounts of fructose develop fatty deposits and cirrhosis, and excessive fructose consumption is believed to contribute to the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in humans.
It doesn’t end there. A number of studies have demonstrated that high fructose consumption can cause elevations in blood levels of uric acid. Elevated uric acid has been linked with heart disease, and it has also been shown to raise blood pressure, cause kidney damage and interfere with insulin responses. In some people, uric acid accumulates in joints and causes gout. Widely considered a Victorian disease and most commonly associated with high intake of animal protein, gout has in fact been increasing in prevalence in the US ever since the introduction of HFCS 40 years ago.
In summary, agave syrup is not a natural food but a processed, concentrated sweetener containing a high amount of fructose. Excess fructose has been strongly linked with a number of extremely harmful health effects.
That said, it’s what you do most of the time that determines your health, so if you choose to consume a little agave every now and again it’s really not worth worrying about. To ensure no one misunderstands what we mean by that, we would say just the same about regular sugar. In our opinion, a wise approach to agave is to view these two in the same category.
In fact, these days we would personally sooner consume a sweet treat containing organic raw cane sugar than we would one containing agave (all other things being equal) as we believe it to be the lesser of the two evils. We certainly would not recommend that anyone consume agave any more often than they would regular sugar. For you that may be never, it may a few times a year, it may be once or twice a month, it may be more frequently.
The main take-home message is that if you have been liberally adding agave to your smoothies and other recipes (or consuming packaged foods containing it) most days in the mistaken belief it is a health food, try not to be alarmed by what you’ve read here, but if you goal is optimal health, do consider stopping.
Here are some brief pointers:
1. To be sure that agave is only an infrequent indulgence for you and your family – if you choose to consume it at all – we suggest banishing it from the repertoire of sweeteners you use in your kitchen. So go ahead and have the raw dessert that’s shouting your name next time you’re eating at your favourite raw restaurant without worrying about what's in it – but get rid of that bottle from your kitchen cupboard and replace it with some healthier alternatives.
2. Many experts say the healthiest sweetener of all is the herb stevia. However, stevia cannot be legally sold in the UK or EU. If you are in the US, where it is available, and can get this to work for you, that’s fantastic. But many people find its bitter overtones a deal-breaker, and as it comes in liquid or powder form it can also be problematic in recipes that call for a syrup-like sweetener.
3. In our opinion the best choice is date “syrup”. You simply soak the quantity of dates you require for 15 minutes to soften them, discard the water, and then blend them until smooth. This forms a thick, syrup-like substance that replaces agave very well in many raw recipes.
4. Organic raw honey is another option which will work well in some recipes.
Dates are around 30% fructose and honey starts at around 40%. By comparison, HFCS and the lowest fructose brands of agave are 55% – and again, raw agave tends to be around 85%. Even more importantly, the fructose in dates and honey also acts very differently in the body because it is the natural form, bound with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre – not the refined, unbound form. In short, unlike agave syrup, dates and honey truly are natural, unprocessed whole foods. That said, although these are much healthier choices than agave and can safely be used every day, they should still be consumed only in small quantities.
We don’t sell dates, honey or stevia, so we have nothing to gain from you switching from agave to these, should you choose to do so. In fact, to the contrary, our decision to stop selling agave will have a negative effect on our bottom line. We have no motive in sharing this information except that of helping you to your very highest level of health – something you can count on us to always put ahead of any other consideration.
We'd be interested to know what you think of our decision, so why not vote in our poll and also leave a comment (please scroll down to leave it on this site, rather than on the poll itself) to explain why you voted as you did.