This was supposed to be a happy post. You know, the kind where I gleefully share with you my latest healthy discovery with nary a bit of controversy. Especially because I happen to use this particular product on a regular basis and would prefer to remain blissfully ignorant. And especially because I have recently encouraged a few of YOU to start using this product (cough Sarah, cough cough, Lisa).
Then I started doing a bit of research.
Darn that research!! Is nothing sacred in the world of nutrition? Can’t we just enjoy our food without people on the internet telling us why it is bad?
Oh, wait. That’s kind of what I do.
So, in the spirit of presenting you the entire story—fair, balanced and slightly annoying—I bring you: The Pros and Cons of Agave Nectar.
Agave Necter = Good:
How do you pronounce agave?
ah-GAH-vay. Or if you are frustrated that there has to be a “bad” section to this post uuuuuuuuuugggggghhhhh-GAH-vay
What is Agave Nectar?
It is made from a large spikey plant called Blue Agave which thrives in the volcanic soils of Southern Mexico, and has been used for thousands of years as an ingredient in food. The nectar made from the plant is known in Mexico as aguamiel, or “honey water.” This is also the same plant from which tequila is made.
How is it made?
To make agave nectar, sap is extracted from the plant, filtered, and heated at a low temperature, which breaks down the carbohydrates into sugars. Lighter and darker varieties of agave nectar are made from the same plants. Because of the low temperatures used in processing many varieties (under 118°F) raw foods enthusiasts generally regard agave nectar as a raw food.
How does it taste?
The taste of agave nectar is comparable, though not identical, to honey. Many people who do not like the taste of honey find agave a more palatable choice. It also has none of the bitter aftertaste associated with artificial sweeteners (or stevia, a natural sweetener).
Though some purveyors offer a half dozen varieties of agave nectar based on different plant varieties and varied preparation methods, most brands offer two types: a light and a dark. The lighter syrups undergo less heating and a more thorough filtration to produce a more mildly flavored product that is neutral enough to be used in many culinary applications. The darker syrups are filtered less, and the solids left in the syrup make for a stronger nectar with a flavor sometimes compared to maple syrup.
Why does this make a good sugar substitute?
Agave nectar is a real sugar, as opposed to an artificial or non-nutritive sweetener. It has properties similar to many sugars with one important exception: its glycemic index is significantly lower.
Granulated sugar has an average glycemic index in the high 60’s, while agave generally scores under 30. Foods with a glycemic index lower than 55 are considered low glycemic foods. Foods lower on the scale are less likely to trigger the body’s mechanisms for fat storage. While it’s not a “free” food for indiscriminate consumption, many individuals on a diet or weight maintenance plan find that agave is a healthier substitute for sugar, and that moderate use of agave nectar can help them enjoy foods that otherwise might be off limits.
Though agave nectar is more calorie-dense than brown or white sugar, it is about 40% sweeter, so the amount of agave can be reduced. It may take some adjustment of recipes to substitute agave nectar for granulated sugar. Artificial sweeteners provide sweetness, but few of the functional properties of real sugars, so they are more difficult to use in things like baking. Agave provides the same variety of functions (including browning, moisture retention, softening and food preservation) as processed sugars.
For more positive information on agave nectar, visit All About Agave.com.
Agave Nectar = Bad:
What Agave Nectar is NOT
While there is a sweetener made by Native Mexican people called miel de agave, (extracted from the agave plant and boiling the sap for a few hours), the agave nectar we find in stores is not that.
And this is where it gets ugly.
According to this popular manufacturer of agave nectar, it is not thousands of years old…
“Agave nectar is a newly created sweetener, having been developed in the 1990s.”
Maybe they meant 1990, BC. (I’m holding onto hope)
Okay, then…How is it REALLY made?
According to Food Renegade, recent articles about agave reveal
“agave “nectar” is not made from the sap of the yucca or agave plant but from the starch of the giant pineapple-like, root bulb. The principal constituent of the agave root is starch, similar to the starch in corn or rice, and a complex carbohydrate called inulin, which is made up of chains of fructose molecules.Technically a highly indigestible fiber, inulin, which does not taste sweet, comprises about half of the carbohydrate content of agave.
The process by which agave glucose and inulin are converted into “nectar” is similar to the process by which corn starch is converted into High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). The agave starch is subject to an enzymatic and chemical process that converts the starch into a fructose-rich syrup—anywhere from 70 percent fructose and higher according to the agave nectar chemical profiles posted on agave nectar websites.”
In other words, both agave nectar and high fructose corn syrup are made the same way, using a highly chemical process with genetically modified enzymes. They are also using caustic acids, clarifiers, filtration chemicals and so forth in the conversion of agave starches into highly refined fructose inulin that is even higher in fructose content than high fructose corn syrup.
What about the Low Glycemic Thing?
Honestly, I got a little lost wading through this information about where and how glucose vs. fructose is metabolized and stored. From my understanding, while agave nectar is, in fact, a low glycemic food, it is metabolized primarily in the liver, which is bad. Therefore, the “low glycemic” quality is irrelevant.
In conclusion, agave nectar is not traditional, is highly refined, and actually has more concentrated fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. It is not a “natural” sweetener and has a ton of chemicals.
For what it’s worth, I talked this over with my friend, who happens to be a naturopathic doctor. He basically said he originally thought agave nectar was good, and he used it for a time. Then he saw the recent reports and studies saying it was worse than sugar. Now he recommends that his patients use honey, maple syrup or table sugar to sweeten food, and not agave nectar. He told me to read this.
The good new within the bad news is that there are a few producers of agave nectar who are committed to creating a truly organic, all-natural product. If you look, you can find them. I’m not sure who they are, but I’m wondering if it’s even worth the effort to go out and find them.
There you have it: The good, the bad and the ugly. You are a smart bunch who care about your bodies. What say YOU about all of this?