Agave Nectar: Healthy or Hype?

January 27th, 2010

Agave nectar has been marketed as a natural and healthy alternative to common table sugar and is becoming a popular ingredient in many so called health foods. Unfortunately, many of the marketing claims associated with agave nectar aren’t true, and it’s arguable that this trendy sweetener actually poses more of a health risk than the sugar that it’s used to replace.

Given the health concerns associated with sugar and its tendency to cause weight gain, many people are going out of their way to avoid it. Those who are conscientious about their health are less likely to use artificial sweeteners, and as a result, are more likely to be influenced by the misleading marketing that depicts agave nectar as a healthier and more natural alternative to table sugar. Although agave nectar is commonly found in health food stores and is an increasingly common ingredient in so called health foods, this is by no means an indication of its safety or nutritional quality.

Agave Nectar vs. Common Table Sugar

The chemical name for common table sugar is sucrose which is a disaccharide that consists of glucose and fructose and is typically derived from highly refined sugar cane or sugar beets. Agave nectar is also highly refined, but is extracted from a variety of plants belonging to the Agave genus. The primary carbohydrate in agave nectar is inulin which is a highly indigestible polysaccharide consisting mostly of fructose and a small amount of glucose. While the fructose in table sugar is bound to glucose, the extensive processing used by many manufacturers to produce agave nectar causes much of its fructose content to exist in isolated form. This is also the case with the infamous sweetener high fructose corn syrup and is one of the reasons why both of these sweeteners are considered to be unhealthy.1

Although agave nectar comes from different types of plants than table sugar, and although it contains glucose and fructose in a different form and in different amounts, the two are probably not as different as most people would expect. It’s already well known that common table sugar is unhealthy, and it’s questionable to think that agave nectar is any better.

The Fructose Controversy

Fructose is often touted as a natural and healthy sweetener that doesn’t cause blood sugar fluctuation and is safe for diabetics. However, research has shown that fructose can increase blood sugar just about as much as glucose.2 Although it’s been shown that fructose invokes less of an immediate insulin response than glucose, this is believed to have the effect of increased appetite and weight gain.3, 4, 5 Furthermore, while all cells can metabolize glucose, fructose is almost exclusively metabolized by the liver where it’s converted into fatty acids which can further increase the potential for weight gain. Fructose metabolism can also result in an increase in triglyceride production5, 6 which is a potential risk factor for insulin resistance, inflammation, obesity, and heart disease. In addition, the need for the liver to metabolize fructose can temporarily limit its capacity to metabolize excess blood glucose which can ultimately increase blood sugar levels and the demand for insulin.7

A popular argument used in defense of fructose is that it naturally occurs in fruit. However, it’s important to realize that the fructose in fruit doesn’t exist in isolated form as it does in agave nectar. In addition, whole fruit contains many other nutrients which are likely to favorably influence how fructose is digested and metabolized. Besides, even the natural sugars in fruit can be a problem if they’re consumed in excess.

Agave Nectar and Industry Deception

As previously mentioned, agave nectar is often promoted as a natural sweetener. Agave plants are abundant in Mexico and consumers are led to believe that agave nectar is a naturally fermented raw sweetener that’s part of traditional Mexican culture. While it’s true that fermented agave is part of Mexican culture, it’s highly unlikely for the agave products commonly sold in stores to have even a remote resemblance to it.8

Most of the agave nectar products available in stores are highly processed and are technically nothing more than hydrolyzed high fructose inulin syrup. Some manufacturers have even resorted to adding high fructose corn syrup and using species of Agave plants containing substances such as saponins that are toxic to humans.1,8 One manufacturer in particular, Western Commerce Corporation, was investigated by the FDA and shut down in 2000 for using high fructose corn syrup in their agave sweetener and deceptively labeling it as certified organic. Unfortunately, even if the FDA’s significant industry bias wasn’t an issue, they don’t have the resources to identify and investigate all of the manufacturers that may be doing things like this.

Better Alternatives

The most nutritious way to satisfy a craving for sweet food is to simply eat a piece of whole fruit. In regard to desserts and other sweet snacks, a nutritious option is to use raw honey. If the calorie content or blood sugar effects of fruit and honey are a concern, then the natural sweetener stevia is a great alternative. In case you believe the claims that agave nectar is a low calorie sweetener, it actually contains about the same amount of calories as maple syrup or honey.

It’s often said that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. This is certainly possible considering the impact sugar can have on your moods. In fact, it’s arguable that sugar can even alter your character. If you think that you’re addicted to sugary foods, I highly recommend reading either The Diet Cure or The Mood Cure by Julia Ross for some effective solutions.

Finally, if you enjoy sweets, which is perfectly acceptable in reasonable moderation, it’s a good idea to consider making your own desserts so that you can choose healthier ingredients. Ice Dream by Rachel Albert-Matesz is an excellent book to help you get started. Although agave nectar is one of the optional sweeteners suggested in the book, Rachel now recommends against using it.

[1. Mercola J, Pearsall. "Sweet Deception: Why Splenda, NutraSweet, and the FDA May Be Hazardous to Your Health." Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006.]
[2. Hughes TA, Atchison J, Hazelrig JB, Boshell BR. "Glycemic responses in insulin-dependent diabetic patients: effect of food composition." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1989. 49:658-666.]
[3. Havel PJ. "Peripheral Signals Conveying Metabolic Information to the Brain: Short-Term and Long-Term Regulation of Food Intake and Energy Homeostasis." Experimental Biology and Medicine. 2001. 226:963-977.]
[4. Wylie-Rosett J, Segal-Isaacson CJ, Segal-Isaacson, A. "Carbohydrates and Increases in Obesity: Does the Type of Carbohydrate Make a Difference?." Obesity Research. 2004. 12:124S–129S.]
[5. Teff KL, Elliott SS, Tschöp M, Kieffer TJ, Rader D, Heiman M, Townsend RR, Keim NL, D’Alessio D, Havel PJ. "Dietary Fructose Reduces Circulating Insulin and Leptin, Attenuates Postprandial Suppression of Ghrelin, and Increases Triglycerides in Women." Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2004. 89(6):2963-2972.]
[6. Bantle JP, Raatz SK, Thomas W, Georgopoulos A. "Effects of dietary fructose on plasma lipids in healthy subjects." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2000. 72(5):1128-1134.]
[7. Taubes, G. "Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health." New York: Random House, 2008.]
[8. Fallon Morell S, Nagel R. "Agave Nectar: Worse Than We Thought." Weston A. Price Foundation. 2009.]

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