Agave nectar (Pronounced "a-gah-vay"), also called agave syrup, is another one of those products that has been snapped up by marketers, health nuts and people who love jumping on the next "healthy" alternative without really looking into the actual properties of the stuff.
Agave nectar, while it has a sexy name and comes from the same plant that makes tequila - which is actually my alcoholic drink of choice - is certainly not the healthy sweetener it is claimed to be.
The claimed health benefits include being low on the glycemic index (13-19) and that you require less of it than other sweeteners making it a lower calorie alternative to sugar without being "artificial". And, wow, it is all natural, gluten free and vegan friendly… no cruelty to bees. Namaste.
My skeptical self would like to add that it is relatively new on the scene, sounds exotic and unfortunately hasn't been condemned yet like good old cane sugar, which all add to it's current popularity.
So how healthy / unhealthy is this stuff, really? Let's look at the facts...
Agave is mainly fructose. Depending on the source and processing it ranges from 60-95 percent fructose but is often at the higher end.
This is way higher than honey (40%), maple syrup (30% - from sucrose), table sugar (50%) or even high fructose corn syrup (55%). Suffice to say, it is unnaturally high in fructose.
If you are clued on to the dangers of concentrated/refined fructose or have read my articles then this fact alone should be enough to scare you away from agave nectar.
Remember, whole fruit is generally ok. Even a "high fructose" containing fruit such as apple is only 7% fructose. As long as you aren't eating a whole watermelon a day you are probably good to go with fruit. (Juice is another story though!)
Fact: Fructose is 1.73 times sweeter than sucrose [table sugar]. (Hanover, 1993).
Fact: Fructose has similar or slightly more calories per gram than sugar.
Not a fact: You need less agave than sugar to get a certain sweetness and therefore will end up consuming fewer calories. This is what the advertisers would have you believe.
A rant on calories...
I find this to be a very poor argument. One of my major gripes with conventional health wisdom is this obsession with "calories in, calories out".
Yes a calorie surplus/deficit will effect weight gain/loss but it is not the only factor.
I believe that the quality (nutrient density), type (macro and micronutrient breakdown) and even timing of the calories you consume are often just as important as the quantity.
I'd love to try this experiment: Take healthy identical twins. Put them on a controlled 1500 calorie a day (Paleo) diet.
In addition to this feed one of them 1000 calories of Agave Nectar per day and the other one 1000 calories of grass-fed, pasture-raised beef per day.
Do this for three months then complete a full blood/lipid panel and body composition test.
I would bet my bottom dollar that the agave twin would have lost lean muscle mass, gained fat and be verging on diabetes... if he hadn't died already! His triglycerides, fasting blood glucose and LDL cholesterol would all be up and he would look, feel and perform like crap... or worse!
I also would bet that the grass-fed beef twin, would have suffered far less deleterious effects from this crazy diet, and may have even improved his body composition and several blood and lipid markers.
Now of course this is a completely ridiculous experiment that no researcher would want to do. I am not suggesting that eating only 1000 calories of beef a day for three months is either healthy or a good idea.
I'm just trying to make the point that calories are not just calories. The human body is not a machine.
Every substance that you consume has an unimaginably complex effect on your metabolism. Not to mention the effect on your endocrine (hormonal) system, cognitive function, mood, fertility, etc, etc.
And of course diet is only one factor at play here. I would say that it is possibly the most important factor but of course genetics, activity levels, endocrine function, stress, sleep, sun exposure, happiness and many other factors are at play.
But back to Agave...
So we know that agave nectar is effectively pure fructose. I've written many times about the perils of refined fructose. The health world is slowly cluing on to the many harmful effects of our vast consumption of refined fructose - particularly from corn syrup.
Unlike glucose, which can be utilized directly by the muscles and brain, fructose cannot and must first be metabolized by the liver.
This requirement to be broken down by the liver is the reason why fructose registers so low on the glycemic index, which measures the effect of certain foods on blood sugar levels.
Yes, it is true that fructose does not spike your blood sugar but the reason why is that it is treated as a toxin by your body and your liver steps in kamikaze style to take the hit and turn it into something benign.
This process slows the release of the sugar into the bloodstream but at a cost.
Like alcohol, fructose is toxic to the liver in large quantities and can cause physical damage over the long term.
Some research to scare you…
- The chronic overconsumption of fructose has been linked with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, obesity, insulin resistance, elevated levels of LDL and triglycerides and heart disease (Mercola, 2010).
- The metabolism of fructose produces glycerol, which is the building block of triglycerides. High levels of triglycerides = bad news.
- Fructose has been shown to interfere with leptin and ghrelin (hormones that deal with hunger and appetite) and be associated with overeating.
And I even came across this (slightly sensationalist) stat, which I'm going to share. Please note that it comes from perhaps the most staunch advocate against fructose, but a highly credible source who I think is doing great work - Dr. Robert Lustig:
"When you eat 120 calories of glucose, less than one calorie is stored as fat. 120 calories of fructose results in 40 calories being stored as fat. Consuming fructose is essentially consuming fat!" (Lustig, 2009).
On a completely observational note, I often come across people following a "Paleo" style diet who complain of not being able to lose weight even though they are avoiding grains and dairy.
When asked, these people are often relying far too heavily on fruit as a main source of carbohydrates and calories. Eating 5-6 or more servings of (high fructose) fruit a day will make it very difficult to loose fat, no matter how hard you are training and how "strict" you are with your diet.
Over consuming nuts is the other most common obstacle for people failing to shed fat on a Paleo diet. It's easy to fall into this trap when you start incorporating delicious nut butters and nut flours into the diet. Almond and coconut flour muffins should not be a staple, kiddos!
Ok so don't misinterpret me here, please. Whole fruit is not the enemy. I often eat a banana post work out, berries most days (very low in fructose) and am not scared of fruit in general.
Having said that, if whole fruit is caffeine, then agave nectar is crack cocaine.
One tablespoon of the stuff roughly contains the fructose of two apples... but remember that it is pure and not tied up in fibre and water. Agave nectar is stripped of antioxidants and nutrients. It's just pure crack.
Agave nectar is definitely not the healthy alternative it is touted as. It's far too high in fructose to be healthy. So much so that I would classify this as an unhealthy product that would be detrimental to your health if over-consumed.
A little bit won't kill you but why even consume it when there are so many better options? If you really must add sweetener to things - and trust me you don't - you'd be better off with honey (preferably raw), coconut sugar or even raw cane sugar.
Ipso fact, David does not do agave nectar.
PS - Given the choice of only eating grass-fed beef or agave I would definitely choose the beef.
Hanover, LM; White, JS (1993). "Manufacturing, composition, and application of fructose". Journal of Clinical Nutrition 58: 724s–732.
Mercola, (2002). http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2002/09/07/hormones-part-three.aspx
Robert H. Lustig, MD (2009). UCSF Faculty Bio Page, and YouTube presentation "Sugar: The bitter truth" and "The fructose epidemic" The Bariatrician, 2009.
[Image source: www.ianchadwick.com]
[Image source: www.ianchadwick.com]