Agave: considering the issues

Sound Consumer | April 2010

by Karen Lamphere, M.S., C.N.

(April 2010) — Editor: Many PCC shoppers are asking questions about agave syrup. This article addresses the most common concerns.

Agave syrup (or nectar) is an increasingly popular sweetener used in drinks, nutrition bars and some desserts. It’s also increasingly controversial.

Agave syrup has about the same number of calories per teaspoon as white sugar but its lower glycemic index doesn’t cause as great a rise in blood sugar. That’s because a high percentage of the sugars in agave nectar are in the form of fructose, which is not absorbed into the bloodstream but instead metabolized in the liver. 

Because of agave syrup’s high fructose content, however, there’s increasing concern that it may not be any better than the other sweeteners it replaces — and may be worse in some respects.

One concern is how it’s processed. Some say it’s processed the same way as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), using strong acids, caustics and genetically engineered (GE) enzymes. Organic agave manufacturers say this is not true for their products.

The agave plant stores its energy in the form of fructans, primarily inulin. To extract the sweetness, inulin must be converted (hydrolyzed) to fructose. This can be done with heat, enzymes or chemicals.

Another concern is how agave is metabolized. It’s often claimed that “sugar is sugar” — whether it’s white or brown sugar, honey or agave — and once metabolized, the effects on the body are the same. That is not accurate.

To explain, it’s helpful to understand the constituents of various sweeteners.

Table sugar is 50 percent glucose, 50 percent fructose.

Honey is 40 percent glucose, 60 percent fructose — a similar percentage to high-fructose corn syrup.

Agave syrup contains the most fructose — up to 90 percent. The high fructose content means agave syrup doesn’t spike blood sugar like other sweeteners do — considered an advantage for diabetics or pre-diabetics.

Excessive fructose, however, can cause harmful metabolic effects. This is because fructose can be metabolized only by the liver and many studies show that high fructose intake can raise triglycerides (implicated in heart disease), and contribute to fatty liver disease and metabolic syndrome.

Several human and animal studies have looked at the metabolic effects of refined fructose and HFCS consumption. But only one study compared the effects of consuming fructose sweeteners and included agave syrup.

The study found a significant increase in triglycerides in rats feeding on moderate amounts of agave. Because moderate instead of excessive consumption was investigated, this study has practical implications.

The concerns about high-fructose sweeteners do not mean that fruit (which is high in fructose) is bad for you. Fruit is a whole food packaged with fiber, vitamins and minerals. It isn’t easy to consume five apples in one sitting (unless they’re juiced) but it is easy to consume an equivalent amount of refined fructose in agave syrup.

A teaspoon or two of agave in your oatmeal isn’t something to worry about. Because it’s sweeter than sugar, less can be used, so that’s an advantage.

One caveat is that because people are shunning HFCS, manufacturers increasingly are using agave in processed “natural” foods. Marketed as low glycemic, natural, organic and diabetic-friendly, many people view agave as a free pass to consume more agave than another sweetener. Indiscriminate use can quickly add up to an unnatural and unhealthy amount of fructose.

Agave syrup may be natural but it is far from a whole food. We need to face facts: our bodies are not evolutionarily equipped to consume a processed, high-sugar diet — no matter what form the sugar takes.

The consequences are apparent in the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Working to tame our sugar cravings is a better strategy than searching for the holy grail of benign sweeteners, which likely does not exist.

Karen Lamphere earned an M.S. in nutrition at Bastyr University and has a private practice in Edmonds. She also teaches “Taming your sugar beast” and “Spring detox” in the PCC Cooks program.

More about: agave, alternative sweeteners, fructose, sweeteners

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