Is Agave Nectar Bad for You?
One of the most common questions I get is which natural sweeteners I recommend using. At this point we all know that sugar and high fructose corn syrup are bad for us, but when it comes to the products on the shelves of natural health food stores, things are a little less clear.
Without fail, someone will always ask my opinion of agave nectar, which is a HOT topic right now for two main reasons:
1. The alternative sweeteners industry netted $1.2 billion in 2010, making agave big business.
2. There is a debate in natural health and medical circles whether or not the health claims by manufacturers are true, making agave quite the controversy.
To get a better understanding of why there is such a heated debate over the health benefits/dangers of agave, we cannot discount the importance of #1. In the spirit of commercialism, I can understand why a competitor company would bash the marketing strategy that promotes agave nectar as a health food. But, what about the claims from a growing number of scientists and natural health experts?
Can their argument be valid? Is agave nectar bad?
What is Agave Nectar?
Mainly produced in Mexico, agave (pronounced ‘uh-GAH-vay’), is a syrup that is made from the Agave tequiliana (tequila) plant. It is about 1 1/2 times sweeter than regular sugar and contains roughly 60 calories per tablespoon, which is about 20 calories more than the same amount of table sugar. In spite of being more dense in calories, agave manufacturers are directly marketing diabetics because it is supposedly lower on the glycemic index (a number that represents the effect a particular food has on someone’s blood sugar). However, these claims don’t seem to be founded on sound science. A growing number of sources are calling out an elephant in the room that, “There’s NOT a lot of research to back that up, and one of the studies was done in lab animals, not people!” (1)
Being a relative new product on the market, limited research has been done on the health benfits and risks of agave. Yet, as research surfaces, we’re starting to see these types of official definitions and descriptions from medical dictionaries, which highlight that agave may not be what it’s cracked up to be:
“Agave is not healthier than honey, sugar, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or any other type of sweetener.”
~ A.D.A.M Medical Encyclopedia (2)
In fact, the truth about agave nectar has come full circle and now a number of health experts are actually condemning it.
A perfect example is how Dr. Oz has officially changed his official stance on the sweetenter.
“Over the past few months, I’ve become increasingly concerned about a sweetener that I’ve recommended on my show in the past. After careful consideration of the available research, today I’m asking you to eliminate agave from your kitchen and your diet.” (3)
Reading this may shock you because you’ve probably heard that agave is a “natural” health food. It is actually manufactured using a highly processed procedure that basically strips the naturally occurring agave juice (referred to as piña) of all nutritional value. Shockingly, the end product contains more fructose than HFCS, which makes it extremely dangerous to consume!
AGAVE NECTAR Nutrition Facts
The fact remains that there’s much more to the story than the so-called “low glycemic load.”
As it stands, one ounce (28 grams) of agave contains a glycemic index of about 13, 20 grams of sugar, and 1 gram of fiber. (4) Unfortunately, when it comes to agave nectar nutrition, this is about it!
Studies on High Fructose & Sugar Diets
Every time you consume excess sugar your white blood cells’ ability to ward off disease is literally dampened for several hours. (5) This does more than you may think and, when you look at the research, the dangers of sugar are quite shocking. According to Nancy Appleton, PhD, there are 141 ways that sugar destroys your health. (6, 7, 8, 9)
- Chronic fatigue
- Dental carries
- Depleted metabolism
- Hormone imbalance and adrenal fatigue
- Skin conditions like acne and eczema
- Stomach ulcers
- Type 2 diabetes
When someone learns how sugar can cause cancer, the danger of this tasty morsel usually hits home. In the words of the American Anti-Cancer Institute,
When we consume sugar, we are simultaneously shutting off our defenses while pouring gasoline on the fire that is Cancer. When we take into account that “50 to 70% of our total immune system cells cannot see cancer … even on our best day,” the notion of adding it to our diet seems even more blasphemous. (10)
The same with high fructose corn syrup.
Manufactured mostly from genetically modified corn, HFCS is anything but natural and anything but healthy. The primary ingredient in most sodas, baked goods and many canned products HFCS is processed by enzymatically converting glucose into fructose. It is exceptionally inexpensive to manufacture, which makes it highly desirable as a sweetener for most food companies. It is also exceptionally dangerous for human consumption. This is just a sample of the many reasons why high fructose corn syrup should be banned from our food supply:
- HFCS contains up to 570 micrograms of mercury per gram. (11)
- HFCS will increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, type II diabetes & heart disease. (1, 1)
- HFCS is a main factor in the obesity epidemic that is causing type II diabetes and cancer to skyrocket. (1)
- HFCS can cause leaky gut syndrome. (12)
- HFCS is one of the main reasons why so many people have cancer today. (13, 14)
- And the list goes on…
Americans consume an average of 50 grams of HFCS every day and the American Nutrition Association has stated that, (11)
“According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the average adult in the United States takes in 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, or a whopping 150 pounds a year, while teens pile in 34 teaspoons a day. That’s more than twice the amount of sugar we should be eating.” (15)
And if this weren’t enough, the real danger is that sugar and high fructose corn syrup are literally everywhere and completely impossible to avoid if your diet consists of processed, fast foods!
AGAVE NECTAR vs. Sugar & High Fructose Corn Syrup?
In the words of Dr. Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., C.N.S., “Agave syrup (nectar) is basically high-fructose corn syrup masquerading as a health food.” (16)
In its original, natural form extracts from the agave plant contain strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. However, none of these beneficial elements are present in the agave that we see in the stores. This is why most natural health experts agree that agave nectar isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be:
- It has a low-glycemic index because it’s largely made of fructose, the single most damaging form of sugar.
- It has the highest fructose content of any commercial sweetener on the market.
- Compared to the 1:1 fructose/glucose ratio of sugar and high fructose corn syrup, agave nearly has a whopping 2:1 ratio.
According to Dr. Bowden,
“Research shows that it’s the fructose part of sweeteners that’s the most dangerous. Fructose causes insulin resistance and significantly raises triglycerides (a risk factor for heart disease). It also increases fat around the middle which in turn puts you at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and metabolic, syndrome (AKA pre-diabetes).” (16)
AGAVE NECTAR Substitutes
Still better than white sugar, better alternatives do exist and I don’t recommend the use of agave nectar at all. If you currently use agave or want to use a recipe that calls for it as a main ingredient, I recommend using these 3 tasty, healthy agave nectar substitutes:
I get asked a lot, which do I prefer agave vs. honey, and my answer is always raw honey! It contains a glycemic load of 14, 23 grams of sugar, 0 grams of fiber and a fair amount of sodium, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and selenium. (17) It is superior to agave in most every way, and I prefer Manuka honey because its health benefits far surpass anything else on the market
There are nearly 400 peer-reviewed scientific studies evaluating the effectiveness of stevia to help treat everything from cancer to high blood pressure. (18) One of my personal favorites, stevia is safe for diabetics because it has zero calories and a glycemic load of zero. If minimally processed, this herb is a fantastic agave nectar substitute. But beware! Not all stevia products on the market are created equal. There can be good or bad stevia side effects depending on the source of the stevia that you use!
Dates are delicious as a natural sweetener in food recipes. You can puree it for added smoothie sweetness, or add it to chocolate mousse. And because dates are rich in fiber, and contain several vitamins and minerals, they add a lot of nutrition, not just flavor. (18)
You can put them in the food processor to make a tasty, sweet paste; soak them in the coconut oil for a few days to make a nice syrup or just eat straight out of the box. Like any chewy sugary treat, don’t eat too much or it can still contribute to tooth decay