Nectar of the gods. Traditional sweetener dating back thousands of years. The healthiest sugar substitute a diabetic can hope for.
Sorry, you’ve been duped.
Last week in our discussion of healthy sweeteners, I briefly mentioned that agave nectar absolutely does NOT belong on our list of natural alternatives to processed sugar.
Agave nectar, syrup, or sugar is a highly processed substance that is not in any way the same traditional food from which its manufacturers drew the inspiration to market it. Virtually none of the claims they make about it are even remotely true.
The giant food companies who came up with this farce did so in an attempt to fool us all into thinking that what they’re selling is this magical “nectar” from a mystical Mexican plant which — of equal mystique — has a unequivocally low glycemic index, is 100% “natural” and “healthy,” and “traditional,” and ought to be considered the ultimate in sugar substitution for the health-conscious consumer.
Why would they say such things if that’s not at all true?
…Let’s take a guess at this one.
…”because it makes them lots of money?”
We have a winner.
The Agave Scam: Worse than Regular Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup
We’re all pretty familiar with how nasty, unnatural, and highly processed high fructose corn syrup is — unless of course, you’re gullible enough to believe one of these ads (from the people that SELL THE STUFF.)
But did you know that the process in which they create agave syrup is the exact same one by which high fructose corn syrup is produced?
That’s right. All that chemically-intensive, factory-made fakeness applies to manufactured agave “nectar” just as much as HFCS. Using all sorts of toxic chemicals, caustic acids, and genetically-modified enzymes, they take the starch of the root bulb from the agave plant, and, just like with the starch from corn, put it through the processing ringer transforming it almost the exact same way into not much more than free synthetic fructose and a bunch of chemicals.
What’s wrong with fructose, you say? After all — fruit has fructose!
Not this kind.
I definitely don’t have a problem with natural fructose. Fruit actually has levulose, a form of fructose bound naturally to all kinds of fibers, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, pectin, and even fatty acids. Manufactured fructose is an isolated compound which is free-formed, and not bound to these kinds of things which make the sugar digestible.
The big reason that the processed, refined fructose in HCFS is so unhealthy is because it’s something so completely unnatural and foreign that your body doesn’t really know what to do with it — so unrecognizable, that it cannot even be digested in your intestine! Actually, it can cause quite a bit of inflammation in your GI tract and permeate the intestinal walls, causing leaky gut. This unbound fructose is metabolized in your liver, where it can rapidly turn into (potentially heart-disease-inducing) triglycerides and adipose fatty tissue. Makes you obese and then kills you off with a heart attack. Lovely.
So, high fructose corn syrup contains 55 percent fructose, the rest being glucose, together they make one seriously potent disaccharide. But again, the synthetically isolated fructose is the major culprit of the health issues.
Agave nectar is, at minimum, 70 percent fructose. 70!
Some brands are as high as 90%. You don’t find levels of fructose like that in natural fruit, or truly natural sweeteners like honey or sucanat.
You would honestly, truthfully be better off eating this instead of agave nectar:
Oh, and get this — Even the FDA isn’t buying it!
Incredibly, even a concerned agent within the Food and Drug Administration itself was troubled enough by the marketing of this new fake food to write up a confidential letter explaining that agave “nectar” should be labeled “HYDROLYZED INULIN SYRUP” — to more accurately represent what the product actually is!
Holy drugged-up-and-standing-in-a-lagoon-of-its-own-defecation COW! Was that a government agency actually expressing concern for the American public’s health and safety?!
Hmm… hence the reason why the letter is “confidential.”
But can we at least start referring to the “nectar” as “hydrolyzed inulin syrup” anyway? I’m gonna. (Well except in this post — I want Google to pick up on the mislabeled buzzword so that more people find out the truth about this stuff!)
When Sweet Becomes Dangerous
The problems with agave go beyond it just being a sorry excuse for a “natural” sweetener. Like I mentioned last week, it’s actually very hazardous to your health. I’m not just talking about the danger of developing diabetes, obesity, or heart disease — though, of course, those are very serious health conditions. And the consumption of high fructose corn syrup, which has less of the inflammation-inducing synthetic fructose than agave, has been strongly linked to them.
But what I’m talking about here, is specific to agave “nectar.” Agave contains highly unsafe levels of saponins — toxic steroid derivatives which disrupt red blood cells causing, in milder cases, diarrhea and vomiting, but much more seriously — unsafe pregnancies resulting in miscarriage.
Does this sound like something you ought to be putting into your body?
“But, but! MY agave is raw, and natural, and really is that healthy nectar flowing from a magical blue plant!”
Sorry to burst your magical blue bubble, but…
- Raw? Nope. Yet another trick of the corporate food trade, they can go right ahead and slap a “raw” label on products that have, in fact, been heated to high temperatures, and no one will say anything about it. Just like with honey, if the product hasn’t been heated to the point of pasteurization (160 degrees), they can and will label it “raw.” But it absolutely, positively, has been cooked. You know how there’s different colors of agave syrup? Some are a darker, more richer-looking amber color? That’s the stuff that they accidentally burnt, due to poor quality control in the factories. The syrup turns brown when heated past 140 degrees. So what do they do with this charred syrup they churned up? They sell it to you as “amber” or “chicory” agave. How special! Mmm. Burnt fructose. But ironically, the way the traditional agave nectar is made in Mexico requires boiling down agave juice to create the nectar—so, “real” agave isn’t actually raw, at all!
- Natural? Nuh-uh. Natural syrup made from the nectar of the agave plant is definitely not what you’re finding at the health food store. It’s a highly processed, unnatural edible substance. Even if you manage to find agave syrup that actually is made from the sap, and not the starch, it’s not in it’s natural form.
- Real agave nectar? Highly, highly unlikely. If you could have fed a small army for a week with what you paid for your precious agave, and you literally watched it carted across the Mexican border by a donkey-toting farmer, okay — maybe. Also, does it taste really, really weird and/or gross? There might be a minuscule chance that it is, actually, agave nectar — the stuff that was actually made by Mexican farmers, not in a factory.
The traditional food that marketers drew their inspiration from to make synthetic
agave nectar hydrolyzed high-fructose inulin syrup, is called miel de agave. It was traditionally made in Mexican cultures from a big, giant, at least 8-year-old agave plant that produces a fruit-like “heart” in the middle of these huge leaves, from which they extract juice, boil it down, and ferment it to create a sap-like syrup, unique to the indigenous peoples of Mexico.
There is not any one company which commercially produces miel de agave in this traditional way. There are, however, two companies that actually do make their agave from the sap of the plant, rather than the starch of the root bulb, however, they still process it to boil the sap down to an even more concentrated sugar. It’s not in any way better for you than just plain old cane sugar.
If you’re really, really convinced that your particular brand of magical “nectar” is 100% legit and not at all this factory-processed, HFCS-like stuff I’ve explained here— okay, fine—let me just give you the benefit of the doubt and nod in agreement that it is indeed what it claims. We cool now?
The fact remains that the stuff is processed, concentrated fructose. Regardless of where it came from, or how it got to that state. I’m not trying to spark an irrational fear of fructose, but it can be damaging to the body when consumed in excess, and concentrated fructose is by definition, an excessive amount. It would be especially easy to overdo it on concentrated fructose when you’re regarding the stuff as a health food. Not recommended.
“Oh, but, I’m diabetic! Agave is low-glycemic, and my doctor says it’s best for my insulin levels.”
Remember how we talked about the isolated synthetic fructose actually being metabolized in the liver rather than in the intestine? And that the sugar gets converted into triglycerides and fatty tissue? Well, by default, that means it’s not being converted into blood glucose. Which, yes, is something diabetics want to avoid disrupting.
But let’s not forget the reasons why synthetic fructose is so harmful. Yet another reason is that it inhibits the production of leptin — the hormone responsible for regulating hunger. So, the more isolated fructose you consume, the greater chance you have of developing obesity. Yeah. Cause that’s real great for diabetics.
I’ll take my syrup from a tree, thanks.
If you want syrup, a better idea is either genuine, organic maple syrup tapped straight from the tree, or coconut nectar, made from the sap of the coconut palm.
Real, whole maple syrup is rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, and phosphorous. Grade B maple syrup—which is even better, because it’s higher in trace minerals—gathered later in the season, more naturally reflects the metabolism changes in the maple tree, and is denser in these nutritious minerals than its paler counterpart, Grade A. Oh, and guess what percentage of fructose is found in natural maple syrup? 0.8%. Compare that to agave’s 70%.
Coconut nectar, or coconut syrup, truly is a low-glycemic sweetener (GI of 35) that won’t mess with your liver, pancreas, blood glucose, triglycerides, or adipose tissue in the way that agave and high fructose corn syrup does. It’s also rich in minerals, amino acids, and vitamins C and B. Just be careful that you’re not buying a coconut-flavored fake syrup (those are usually sweetened with HCFS). You can find the real deal from this brand here which uses a low-temperature, non-chemical process to turn the natural sap from the tree into a palatable, yet not super-coconutty syrup.
Find these even more natural sweeteners, like raw honey, here at the Village Green Marketplace.
Have you been duped by agave? Isn’t it awful how they’ve tried to pull the wool over our eyes with this?
And is agave absolutely everywhere in the health food stores in your area, too? What are your favorite alternative sweeteners to use instead that are actually healthy?
(Oh and also, sorry for having the sass-dar on super high today. I’ve seen people get weirdly defensive about this agave stuff and I thought I’d cut the naysayers to the chase. Consider yourselves cut.)
[disclosure: cmp.ly/4; cmp.ly/5]