Bad Press on Agave Nectar

Posted on September 6, 2010


I have often recommended Agave Nectar or Agave Syrup to many clients as an alternative sweetener, so I was a little concerned when there started to be some negative internet chatter on the subject.

Agave is the large, spiky cactus used to make Tequila and Mezcal. Agave syrup can be a great tasting and easy to use lower Glycemic Index sweetener with a honey-like flavor and slightly thinner consistency. The healthiest Agave syrup is made exclusively from the Mexican blue agave cactus; minimally processed, and low-temperature extracted. This results in a unique tasting, versatile, and healthier sweetener.

The main arguments against Agave as a healthy alternative sweetener are as follows:

– There are huge variations in product quality. Different types of Agave cacti may be used, as well as some cacti that are not true Agave. Extraction and processing methods vary greatly and are not well regulated. Some Agave syrup has been found to be adulterated with Corn Syrup, a notoriously low-quality “unhealthy” sweetener.

– All this has resulted in most Agave syrup on the market being very high in fructose and stripped of most other nutrients through high-heat processing and intensive filtration. Excessive fructose consumption results most notably in insulin resistance, high blood triglycerides and so-called metabolic syndrome, and the plethora of accompanying symptoms and conditions.

The fact is that the product has changed. As the food industry subsumes a once noble hand-crafted small-production artisanal food product like Agave, we see the inevitable decline in quality and as a result a diminishment of it’s value as a whole, natural, healthier alternative to refined sugars. It has, in many cases, become a refined sugar itself.

However, I think to dismiss Agave syrup outright would be a huge loss from the range of choices we have in healthier sweeteners. I think the low Glycemic Index of all Agave syrup products supercedes the more immediate dangers of refined higher GI sugars. High Glycemic Index foods – like most refined sugars – have such an immediate, measurable, deleterious effect on the body (immune suppression, damage to micro capillaries, inflammatory disregulation, acidification, pancreatic stress, radical and rapid energy fluctuations, insulin resistance…) that glycemic index takes priority as a major consideration in overall health optimization.

In a reasonable diet without an excess of hidden sweeteners, processed foods, and desserts, in a person who is not sick or obese; the glycemic index is paramount. Agave syrup has a very low glycemic index compared to other sweeteners. The “danger” with agave is no different than the dangers of fruit if consumed in great excess. Agave, and fruit incidentally, are both vastly superior sweeteners compared to refined sugars when used in moderation as part of an intelligent and balanced diet.

The best Agave is Organic Raw Blue Agave syrup or nectar. Unfortunately most prepared foods sweetened with Agave fail to specify the quality in their ingredient list. This generally limits us to pure agave syrup to be used in home cooking or as a healthier sweetener in home made beverages, on cereals, etc. I now recommend that Agave of unspecified quality be limited to occasional and moderate consumption. Just as with many other healthier sweeteners, quality must be considered. Honey, maple, molasses, dried cane juice, palm sugar, and other “good” sweeteners only qualify as “good” when quality standards are maintained, and even then moderation still applies.

My professional position: Replacing refined sweeteners with a range of whole, less-processed, lower GI, sweeteners has broad whole-health effects and can be a major factor in the reversal of most major chronic illness. It is often really that simple. The refining of sugars is bad for you, bad for the environment, and bad for the people who are involved in the farming of the raw materials. I help my clients integrate these ideas into smarter shopping and better health.

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