Dear Agave Syrup,
I thought you had potential, your packaging made you look so healthy and natural. Your golden amber hue reminded me of honey, as did the title ‘nectar’. Nectar? This is a term reserved for rare purity, divine nectar, nectar of the Gods- call it what you will. You hijacked this term and used it miles out of context. You continue to trick people with your low-glycemic index and tasteless sweetness. I won’t stand for it anymore, and I’m telling the world, agave syrup is not your friend.
Processed food is processed food. You can call it what you will, you can dub it the ultimate alternative to sugar, you can sing its praises from the mountains high but when all is said and done, many health foods are just as processed as those weird cheese slices wrapped in plastic.
Ok well maybe it’s not that bad, but I kid you not, a lot of stuff being touted as healthy and natural, is far from it. This happens for a number of reasons, because health is an industry just like any other and people are out to make money. There’s not much stopping companies, aside from reputation, from putting whatever they want on a label. When agave nectar came on to the scene it sounded like such a precious and wonderful natural substance. I would use it instead of honey for a long time until I found out that it’s mostly fructose and difficult for our livers to assimilate. Really it just turns to fat, something that doesn’t happen quite as easily with an actual natural sweeteners.
I’m writing this series because I want to bring awareness to the gaping holes in the food labelling/marketing procedures. People can say whatever they want about their revolutionary new product, but the proof is in the pudding. Many of us are just trying to be health conscious, but we don’t necessarily have time to research every single ingredient we ingest and it’s natural to see something labelled ‘healthy’ and assume that must be the case.
In the first part of this series we talked about the dangers of soy, a long time pseudo health food. Today I want to go into more detail about some common sweeteners. I’m not even going to get into aspartame because I think by now most people know about the dangers associated with this rat poison in disguise. But lets talk about agave, because there’s still a lot of people under the impression that this is a good alternative to sugar.
Agave is far from being a whole food, it’s actually highly processed and unlike the name suggests, doesn’t fall into the category of a true ‘nectar’ whatsoever. The extraction of the sweet syrup comes from the starchy root of the plant. It’s a process similar to that of high fructose corn syrup and requires a transformation of the plant fibre inulin into sugar.
This is done by means of enzymatic or thermal hydrolisis. In the case of raw agave nectar, enzymatic hydrolosis technically ensures the agave syrup is still raw.
The process converts inulin into fructose and the finished product is anywhere from 70% fructose or higher. In contrast, high fructose corn syrup is 55% fructose and 45% glucose and even THAT causes problems with insulin response. (1) (2)
But…Agave has a low glycemic index, making it good for diabetics right? Wrong.
Just like research has proven high fructose corn syrup to be dangerous for diabetics, agave syrup could be even more so. The dangers of agave syrup lie in the fact that our bodies just weren’t designed to process such high levels of fructose. The main fuel used in humans is glucose, at least with glucose we can use it up as energy but fructose is pretty useless.
So what’s the problem with concentrated fructose? Well the common assumption is that fructose is a naturally occurring sugar present in fruit. In actuality, fructose is just one type of sugar present in fruit, there’s also levulose,sucrose and glucose. Accompanied by the whole fruit itself, complete with fibre, antioxidants and enzymes, it’s far less harmful to consume fruit than it is to consume their extracted sugar concentrate.
There are key differences between levulose, glucose and fructose, the most important being that levulose and glucose are digested in the intestine. Fructose is processed through the liver, which is why it doesn’t spike insulin levels. It’s for this reason that agave syrup is promoted as a low-glycemic sugar substitute for diabetics, but it is by no means safe.
Because fructose is processed through the liver it immediately turns into triglycerides or stored body fat. The effects of this are amplified as it inhibits leptin, the main hormone responsible for helping us feel satiated. This then causes us to eat more, perpetuating the problem that it’s supposed to be helping.
Studies show fructose sweetened beverages leads to increased insulin sensitivity (3). So while agave may have a low-glycemic index it’s still not appropriate for diabetics to consume. A better option would be whole fruit or natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup that have a balanced ratio of fructose and glucose.
With diabetes and obesity on the rise, more and more evidence is coming out to show sugar being the culprit. The explosion of popular diets with the goal to balance blood sugar is a direct reaction to the worlds growing addiction. Yet we still want some sweetness in life. Dried fruit is great but we want our treats, and we are all guilty of this. I think it has a lot to do with how we were raised and many of us grew up eating a SAD diet high in sugar and refined carbs.
So the market started churning out these low glycemic sweeteners. First it was aspartame, well gosh it took us awhile to catch up to that one! I’m still horrified that diet sodas are even allowed on the shelves. If this is news to you please check out the documentary Sweet Misery: A Poisoned World. Then it was sucralose, stevia, and xylitol, which are far less devastating than aspartame but still a far cry from being healthy. For a lot of us, the taste of artificial sweeteners is a major turn off, there’s no denying they all have a strangely fake sweetness, one that provides no energy whatsoever.
But in an age where sugar is fast becoming the major health villain, we take what sweetness we can get. Then along came agave syrup in the 1990’s, before the 90’s we lacked the technology to even be able to produce the stuff. It caught on as a low GI, healthy alternative to sugar that didn’t spike insulin and that tasted sweet without the after taste of the artificial sweeteners.
Southwestern Indigenous peoples used agave in their traditional diets, but the processing was closer to how we make maple syrup. They would gather sap from the plant and boil it down to make a thick syrup. This is quite different from the often genetically modified enzymatic treatment commonly used to extract the sweet liquid today.
It sure is unfortunate that manufacturers put whatever they want on labels. It’s empowering to know the truth before we invest in something that lacks any real merit. There’s also something about the taste of agave syrup, it really is just pure sweetness, lacking any depth of flavour. It strikes me as being cheap to produce and is basically the organic industries version of high fructose corn syrup. Unfortunately, agave is probably even less healthy than regular old cane sugar. At least normal sugar has a ratio of glucose and fructose that our bodies understand.
I now try and stick to truly natural sweeteners of which there aren’t very many Coconut sugar (succanat), maple syrup and raw honey. Sweetness in life is nice don’t get me wrong, but lets save the agave for natural fibre production.
If you haven’t already, check out part I of the series all about the dangers of soy.