Agave nectar. If you have any interest whatsoever in healthy eating you’ve at least heard of it, you’ve definitely consumed it, and you’ve probably purchased it at some point. It seems overnight it went from being just one among many mysterious non-sugar sweeteners dotting health food store shelves to the darling of everyone and anyone trying to do the right thing.
I can still remember when I first learned about agave nectar. An all-natural ‘raw’ sweetener made from the same plant that so generously gives us tequila? And low-glycemic to boot? Sounds too good to be true.
Turns out it is.
Like so many of the food products disguised as the healthy magic bullet alternative (think margarine replacing butter, soy ‘meats’ and textured vegetable protein replacing animal products), agave nectar is more of a marketing hoax than anything else. And, as with so many of these ‘alternatives’, it turns out to be worse than the real thing – which in the case of agave is sugar.
Does this surprise you? It did me. And from the fact that I continue to see it displayed proudly and prominently on the labels of even the healthiest of food items, I think it’s safe to say it would surprise many of even the more informed health advocates out there.
Chemically speaking, agave is essentially the same as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Need to read that again to take it in? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Yes, you read that right. In fact, it can actually be worse for you than HFCS because some brands of agave are even higher in fructose. At its best, agave contains 55% fructose, the same percentage as HFCS. At its worst, agave can contain up to 95% fructose! This makes it much worse than HFCS. And don’t even get me started on HFCS…
But it’s low-glycemic! How can it be bad for you?
Here’s a very important point about fructose generally: fructose does not increase insulin levels because it does not break down into glucose (blood sugar). This is why it’s described as “low-glycemic.” Food manufacturers twist this fact into suggesting it’s fine for those watching their blood sugar levels. BUT, fructose does lead directly to insulin resistance, which is ultimately a much worse situation (and one small step away from full-blown diabetes). The way fructose is metabolized in your body basically puts it on the fast track to fat storage, insulin resistance, and fatty liver.
Now, excessive amounts of fructose from any source is damaging, but at least when it comes in the form of a whole fruit it comes with all sorts of other nutrients – vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and so on. (Note: I recommend you limit your fruit intake to 1-2 servings per day and always stay away from fruit juice.) Unlike fruit, agave is highly processed, and so all of these nutrients are obliterated and you’re left with just the fructose, and massive quantities of it that you’d never find in nature.
The myth around agave is strong. Manufacturers would love you to believe that it comes directly from the sap of the plant. Yet most brands use the root of the cactus and an intensive extracting process to convert that root into the sweet ‘nectar’ we get in the stores.
Now, there are some agave producers who truly are bottling the sap without processing, and these companies come closer to their health claims. Trouble is, they’re hard to find. All of them are claiming to be natural and a healthier alternative to sugar; many of them claim to be raw. Some of them are organic, and they may well be, but being organic doesn’t affect the fructose levels or processing. Ultimately, there’s no regulatory body ensuring what they say has any meaning or credibility, putting us as the consumers in a tricky spot.
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