In case you missed it, a couple weeks back I introduced a “What about” series addressing common questions about questionable foods and beverages. To recap…
When working with Alchemist Eating clients (or planning my own meals), I start with some basic primal parameters:
1. Eat real, whole food: I’m talking high-quality meat, fish and eggs; healthy fats and oils; lots of veggies; and moderate amounts of fruit, nuts and seeds. (For some people, high-quality, full-fat dairy is okay too, as are “occasional, sensible indulgences,” such as dark chocolate.)
2. Avoid: grains, legumes, processed food, added and artificial sweeteners, and chemically altered fats and oils.
From there, I add, subtract and tweak based on individual needs and Chinese Medicine food therapy.
But the question often arises: “What about (insert your questionable food, beverage or supplement here) ???”
What about agave?
Well, one factor to take into account when assessing sweeteners is the types of sugar they contain.
On a chemical level, there are different kinds of sugar found in different proportions in different sweeteners and sugary foods. For the low-down on the most common ones, check Mark Sisson’s guide here.
Turns out commercial agave is crazy-high in the sugar fructose—even higher than high-fructose corn syrup.
What’s so bad about fructose? That’s fruit sugar, right?
Yes, fructose is found in fruit. But fruit is a “complete package,” containing antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, pectin and fiber. Getting sugar from a whole-food source is very different from consuming a processed, highly concentrated sweetener.
Fructose does fall lower on the glycemic index than glucose or sucrose, making it less likely to cause the same spike in blood sugar. For this reason, it’s sometimes recommended as a healthier alternative for people with diabetes.
Problem is, fructose leads to increased levels of ghrelin (known as the “hunger hormone” for its role in stimulating appetite).
Plus, high-fructose diets may contribute to insulin and leptin resistance Leptin, known as the “satiety hormone,” helps us know when we’re full.
What’s more, fructose is processed mostly in the liver, and a high-fructose diet may promote non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. A by-product of its metabolism is uric acid, which may in turn contribute to cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol.
Taking all this together, commercial agave’s super-high fructose content is a big strike against consumption.
Another factor to consider is the presence or absence of health benefits.
Whole fruit, raw honey, and minimally processed maple syrup and molasses, for example, are natural sweets containing not just sugar but beneficial nutrients. These nutrients, including valuable antioxidants, have an impact on how these sugar sources affect the body.
Commercial agave, on the other hand, is sorely lacking beneficial nutrients. In this way, it more closely resembles table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup than natural sweeteners such as raw honey.
Thought agave was a natural sweetener?
Yeah, that’s a common misconception—and is hardly surprising, seeing as agave is widely marketed as a “natural, healthy” alternative. Unfortunately, such marketing is way off and notions that commercial agave is “natural” or “healthy” are way wrong.
Once again, we arrive at a far-too-familiar, critical difference between a traditional food and its current, commercial permutation.
Agaves are spiky desert plants that look similar to cacti though they’re actually succulents more closely related to aloe vera. Comprising more than 100 species, agaves come in myriad sizes and colors.
Traditionally, indigenous peoples collected their sap and boiled it down to create a thick, natural sweetener. Fermented juice from agave plants is also used to make tequila.
The stuff sold at Whole Foods and sitting in coffee shops is not traditional agave.
Indeed, the method used to make commercial agave wasn’t even developed until the 1990s. It involves a multi-step manufacturing process that includes removing “impurities” from raw agave liquid.
Next, enzymes are added to convert the inulin in agave to fructose (inulins are a group of naturally occurring polysaccharides produced by many plants). The “new-and-improved” high-fructose liquid then goes to an evaporation chamber to further concentrate the sugars.
This processing method—along with commercial agave’s nutritional profile and effects on the body—is very similar to that of high-fructose corn syrup.
The two also have similar culinary qualities and are used in similar ways in processed foods. Those bottles of organic agave-sweetened juice at your local health-food store? Or that pricey agave-flavored ice-cream?
Yeah, um, not tons better than stuff loaded with high-fructose corn syrup (though the other ingredients in the agave-containing choices likely make them the least worst option, not to mention the near certainty that corn syrup contains GMOs).
But wait…there’s more. That bottle of “raw agave nectar”? Made the same way. The enzymatic nature of the manufacturing process means calling it “raw” is totally allowed.
So where does this leave us? Here’s my take on agave, in short form:
1. Avoid it. It’s highly processed, crazy-high in fructose, devoid of nutritional benefit and has a negative impact on health.
2. If, for some reason, you ignore #1 and find yourself choosing between a product sweetened with agave and one sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, the agave-sweetened one is probably the least worst option (partly due to the other ingredients and GMOs likely found in the corn-syrup choice).
3. Still, don’t fool yourself. Commercial agave nectar is not paleo-primal and is not a healthy choice. If your coffee shop had a bottle of high-fructose corn syrup sitting alongside the milk and sugar, would you squeeze that into your mug? Agave’s pretty much the same thing.
4. Better to pick a true natural sweetener, such as raw honey or minimally processed maple syrup or molasses.
Got your own “What about” questions? Ask away in the comments!