Insights by Goldie
Bitter and sweet: agave syrup

Sound Consumer | September 2009

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Recently, upon return to the office after a few days away, I thought it odd that I had a cluster of e-mails and voice-mails all asking similarly suspicious, troubling questions — mostly about agave syrup.

Additional questions about agave have been raised by other shoppers, including participants in PCC’s Free Walk, Talk and Taste tours in our stores.

Agave, for those unfamiliar with it, is syrup processed from various species of Mexican plants, commonly called Maguey. PCC currently sells two brands, Wholesome Blue Agave, made from the Weber Azul species (the same type distilled for tequila); and Madhava Agave, made from the salmiana species. Both brands are USDA certified organic.

In the past few years, many products have touted using agave as the only or primary sweetener. Label statements typically promote agave as being low on the glycemic index and unlikely to cause sudden spikes in blood sugar. Some manufacturers refer to the sweetener as useful for diabetics or others sensitive to sweeteners.

Judging by sales (and several blogs), consumers generally are very favorable in their comments, enthusiastic about agave’s varying flavors and uses — some favoring the milder, light, more refined varieties; others preferring the darker, rich flavors, especially those labeled “raw” (meaning they’re processed at temperatures not exceeding 118 degrees F).

No perfect sweetener

Many seek the holy grail, a “perfect” sweetener “best” for health. My approach is that all added sweeteners should be used sparingly and consumed with whole grains and some good fat and protein, such as nuts.

We know that many shoppers who discover agave read label claims, try it (or products sweetened with it) and experience a health-minded “conversion” to agave.

Such strong consumer opinions aren’t limited to agave. “It changed my life!” comments are frequent from some who migrated from white sugar to maple syrup or honey — or perhaps the mildly sweet syrups from brown rice or barley malt.

People struggling to “kick” addictions to artificial sweeteners sometimes are delighted with the low- or no-calorie sugar alcohol sweeteners, xylitol and erythritol, or the herb-based Stevia products.

But when it comes to agave, it’s ascendancy as a sweetener puts it in a class by itself, possessing a high fructose/low glucose ratio — with a total fructose load sometimes twice or more that of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Counterintuitive as it sounds, those aspects actually helped gain agave a “thumbs up” from popular health advisors Dr. Mehmet Oz, of Oprah fame, and the venerable Dr. Andrew Weil.

Even Debra Lynn Dadd, a consumer/peer-advisor on home products and sometimes food ingredients, endorses agave at her Sweet Savvy web and blog. Yet she advocates avoiding all types of corn sweeteners. She also opposes highly processed, non-caloric xylitol and erythritol.

Recently, attacks on agave have sharply increased on several popular alternative health websites. These include 1) Natural News, November, 2008; 2) Dr. Mercola, July, 2009; and 3) the Weston Price Foundation.

Weston Price’s co-founder, Sally Fallon-Merrill, devoted the entire 2009 spring edition of Wise Traditions to expounding on: “Worse Than We Thought: the lowdown on high fructose corn syrup and agave ‘nectar.’”

Rami Nagel co-authored the rant against agave, which originally appeared in Natural News (alongside a rebuttal from Madhava Agave). Nagel attributes all his information to a Russ Bianchi, a 30-year veteran of “global product development.” (Numerous statements by Nagel are so broad-brushed and carelessly handled that I find most less than credible.)

Fallon-Morell, however, is a formidable bulldog and a seasoned researcher whose books and activities for two decades always champion a return to traditional foods. Intent on discomforting the comfortable, she challenges the lack of serious metabolic research on agave, which should examine the public health consequences that may come from consuming high levels of industrially manipulated fructose from all sources — whether corn, agave or otherwise.

She offers insights on past research, including research on sugar that reportedly was derailed by unnamed global sugar daddies intent on preserving their sweet pots of gold.

Fallon-Merrill also skewers modern food technologists — inferring they’ve participated in a bait-and-switch by replacing HFCS with agave. Her argument is that all highly processed fructose consumed in high quantities can affect health, that it’s immaterial whether they’re from genetically engineered corn or a pretty, iconic desert plant.

There is no “perfect” sweetener. My answer to those who ask about any sweetener: please, go easy on all added sweeteners and processed foods. Choose seasonal, organic foods in their whole, natural state.

More about: agave, glycemic index, high-fructose corn syrup, sweeteners

Navigation