When we moved to Southern California from Washington, D.C., we discovered agave syrup. I was excited because I wrestle with blood sugar irregularities, and agave is often touted for its low glycemic index—meaning that it is relatively low in glucose, and therefore does not raise blood sugar as much as other types of sugar or provoke as much of an insulin response.
And because agave syrup is a popular sugar substitute in the raw food community, I guess I was naive enough to think that someone was squeezing agave leaves into a jar somewhere, making what I assumed was a minimally-processed, “healthy” sweetener.
Well… I spend a lot of time researching where my food comes from and it is very important to me to buy whole, least-processed foods, and to limit my family’s sugar intake. So, what I learned about agave syrup was very disheartening.
The Glycemic Research Institute announced that they have halted and banned all future clinical trials of agave, and legally “de-listed” and placed a ban on agave for use in foods, beverages, chocolate and any other products, due to results of 5 years of human in-vivo clinical trials on agave. Additionally, they have warned that manufacturers who produce and use agave in products can be held legally liable for negative health incidents related to ingestion of agave.
Agave syrup is very high in fructose. Depending on the brand, agave can contain as much as 80% fructose! Nowhere does this ratio of fructose to glucose occur naturally. The amount of fructose in agave is much, much higher than the 55% fructose in high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or the 50% fructose in cane sugar. It should really be called HFAS: High Fructose Agave Syrup!
High Fructose Agave Syrup
The fact that agave syrup is high in fructose is often hailed as a benefit of using it. What many people don’t realize is that concentrated fructose is probably worse for you than high amounts of glucose.
People tend to think that fructose is a benign sugar because it is found naturally in fruit. But, despite the name “fructose,” whole fruit actually has a relatively low concentration of fructose compared to agave, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, or cane sugar. (However, eating huge quantities of fruit is just as bad for you as eating a lot of table sugar. Everything in moderation.)
There are a number of health problems associated with eating too much fructose:
- Fructose interferes with copper metabolism. This prevents collagen and elastin from being able to properly form. Collagen and elastin are components of the connective tissue which essentially holds the body together.1 A deficiency in copper can also lead to porous bones, anemia, defects of the arteries, infertility, high cholesterol levels, heart attacks, and an inability to control blood sugar levels.2
- When you take in fructose, it must first travel to the liver before it can be converted to glycogen—a source of energy. But if you don’t immediately burn this energy, the fructose gets converted to triglycerides—the fats in the blood that are associated with heart disease.
- Fructose can make you fat. Blood triglycerides made from fructose are stored as fat, which increases the size of your fat cells, contributing to weight gain and obesity.3
- Consuming high amounts of fructose on a regular basis can contribute to Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD), which even children are now getting from all the high-fructose corn syrup in their diets. Most brands of agave syrup are higher in fructose than HFCS.
- The excess triglycerides created when you eat fructose increase insulin resistance, thereby boosting insulin production to very high levels, which fosters the development of metabolic syndrome and diabetes in a “back door” fashion.4
- Consumption of fructose has been shown to cause a significant increase in uric acid.An increase in uric acid can be an indicator of heart disease and can contribute to gout and other circulatory problems.5
- Fructose consumption has been shown to increase blood lactic acid, especially for people with conditions like diabetes. Extreme elevations may cause metabolic acidosis.6
- Consumption of fructose leads to mineral losses, especially excretion of iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc.7 This can lead to bone and tooth demineralization.
- Fructose can cause accelerated aging through oxidative damage. Fructose contributes greatly to the creation of AGEs (advanced glycated endproducts), which are proteins that have inappropriately bonded to sugars in your blood. Fructose is the worst of the sugars for this, and when it bonds to proteins, these molecules stiffen the cells in your body, inhibiting their function (they literally age faster). This is the cause of arteriosclerosis, kidney problems and aging skin—the very types of damage seen in diabetic complications.8
Ironically, diabetics have been advised to use fructose for sweetening because it doesn’t directly cause a glucose or insulin spike. But whether you are diabetic or not, high fructose consumption does massive damage to your body.
How Agave is Produced
Agave is not naturally sweet like sugar cane, honey or fruit. In fact, agave is high in polysaccharides, and typically requires an intensive, industrial process to extract its sweetness on a commercial scale. The main carbohydrates in the agave sap are complex forms of fructose called fructosans, one of which is inulin. In this state, the sap is not very sweet.
To produce agave syrup, juice is expressed from the core of the agave, called the piña. The sap is then heated anywhere from 120°F to 140°F for about 36 hours not only to concentrate the liquid into a syrup, but also to develop the sweetness.
When the agave sap is heated, the complex fructosans are hydrolyzed, or broken into smaller fructose units. The fructose-rich solution is then filtered to a product that ranges in color from light to dark depending on the degree of processing.
An alternative method of processing the agave juice without heat (“raw” agave) uses enzymes derived from Aspergillus niger (black mold) to hydrolyze the polysaccharide extract into fructose. Excess water is then evaporated using heat lower than 115°F. Only a handful of companies use this method because it is labor intensive, and they cater specifically to the raw food crowd.
Whether heavily processed with heat and chemicals or minimally processed with enzymes, today’s agave syrup is not a whole or traditional food. It is a factory-made, modern product made on an assembly line. And like all processed foods, agave syrup is missing many of the enzymes and nutrients that the original plant had to begin with.
And like many processed foods, agave contains very high amounts of fructose that the human body simply wasn’t designed to handle.
In sum: Agave syrup is bad for you.
A Spoonful of Sugar…
For most of our long existence on this planet, humans have eaten very little sugar. Most wild fruit was much less sweet than the hybridized fruit available today, and unless you lived in a tropical region, there were very few fruit varieties, which were only available in their season and could not be stored well. Wild honey was rare and, as you can imagine, very hard to procure.
It was only in the past 300 hundred or so years that we actively exploited Third World countries in part to ensure a steady supply of sugar cane for First World tables. And it is only in the past 150 or so years that we began to hybridize our fruits in earnest to make them sweeter, larger, and more prolific.
It is even more recently that we began to grow and ship fruit on an industrial, international scale so it would be abundantly available year round in all parts of the world. And most recently of all, we have been using modern industrial and chemical processes to manufacture sweeteners not found in nature at all.
Since that time, whether from fruit, honey, cane sugar, or hydrolized high-fructose syrups (corn, rice, agave), Americans have steadily increased our sugar intake up to the 120 pounds each we eat per year today.
The epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay and other degenerative diseases today would suggest that so much sugar from any source is maladaptive and harmful to our survival.
So while our relationship was short and sweet, for many reasons, I must say, “Farewell, agave.”
- Fields, M, Proceedings of the Society of Experimental Biology and Medicine, 1984, 175:530-537.
- Klevay, Leslie, Acting Director of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Human Nutrition Research Center, Grand Forks, N.D.
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 2002 Vol. 76, No. 5, 911-922.
- H. Hallfrisch, et al., The Effects of Fructose on Blood Lipid Levels, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 37: 5, 1983, 740-748.
- J. MacDonald, Anne Keyser, and Deborah Pacy, Some Effects, in Man, of Varying the Load of Glucose, Sucrose, Fructose, or Sorbitol on Various Metabolites in Blood,American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 31 (August 1978)): 1305-1311.
- Hallfrisch, Judith, Metabolic Effects of Dietary Fructose,FASEB Journal 4 (June 1990): 2652-2660.
- A. E. Bergstra, A. G. Lemmens, and A. C. Beynens, Dietary Fructose vs. Glucose Stimulates Nephrocalcinogenesis in Female Rats, Journal of Nutrition123, no. 7 (July 1993): 1320-1327.
- Roger B. McDonald, Influence of Dietary Sucrose on Biological Aging, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 62 (suppl), (1995): 284s-293s.
- Fructose Metabolism More Complicated Than Was Thought, 2008
- Fructose Linked to Fatty Liver Disease, 2010