Dr. Joseph Mercola.Physician and author
April 15, 2010 .
Many people interested in staying healthy have switched to agave as a safer "natural" sweetener. They want to avoid well documented dangerous sweeteners like HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) but are unaware that most agave is actually WORSE than HFCS.
This expose will offend many hard core natural health advocates because they have been convinced of the agave hype by companies that are promoting it.
Some have even criticized me for having "ulterior" motives. But nothing could be further from the truth. Although I do offer natural health products for sale on this site, I sell no competing products to agave.
Rather, I recommend other options such as stevia products. You can also use xylitol in small amounts or glucose which is sold as dextrose and can easily be purchased on Amazon for $1 per pound. I do not sell any of these products.
My only purpose for sharing this information is to help people understand the truth about health. In case you haven't noticed, we have an epidemic of obesity in the US and it wasn't until recently that my eyes opened up to the primary cause - - fructose.
I had similar epiphanies about omega-3 fats and vitamin D since I started this site, but this is the most major health appreciation I have had since I learned about vitamin D over five years ago. This is serious business and it is my intention to make the public fully aware of it and let you make your own choices.
Yes it is all about freedom of choice. It is hard to have freedom if you aren't given the entire story, and up until now that has been the case with agave.
So Just What is Agave?
Blue agave is an exotic plant growing in the rich volcanic soil of Mexico under a hot tropical sun, boasting a stately flower stem that blooms only once in its lifetime. "Agave" literally means "noble." It's generally recognized as a superstar of the herbal remedy world, claiming to offer relief for indigestion, bowel irregularity, and skin wounds.
Ferment it, and you have Mexico's favorite adult beverage -- tequila.
Just the name "agave" conjures up images of romantic tropical excursions and mysterious shamanic medicine.
These are the mental images many agave "nectar" sellers want you to hold. They use agave's royal pedigree to cover the truth that what they're selling you is a bottle of high-fructose syrup, so highly processed and refined that it bears NO resemblance to the plant of its namesake.
Such a high fructose content isn't typical of all agave products. "Depending on how the syrup is processed, it may or may not contain more fructose," says Roger Clemens, a professor at USC and spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists, whose research has focused on functional foods, food processing and nutrition.
Depending on the source and processing method used, agave syrup can, therefore, contain as little as 55% fructose, the same amount found in high-fructose corn syrup -- in which case the syrup would offer no advantage.
What is the "Real" Truth about Agave?
If you knew the truth about what's really in it, you'd be dumping it down the drain -- and that would certainly be bad for sales.
Most agave "nectar" or agave "syrup" is nothing more than a laboratory-generated super-condensed fructose syrup, devoid of virtually all nutrient value, and offering you metabolic misfortune in its place.
Unfortunately, masterful marketing has resulted in the astronomical popularity of agave syrup among people who believe they are doing their health a favor by avoiding refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup, and dangerous artificial sweeteners.
And if you're diabetic, you've been especially targeted and told this is simply the best thing for you since locally grown organic lettuce, that it's "diabetic friendly," has a "low glycemic index" and doesn't spike your blood sugar.
While agave syrup does have a low-glycemic index, so does antifreeze -- that doesn't mean it's good for you.
Most agave syrup has a higher fructose content than any commercial sweetener -- ranging from 55 to 97 percent, depending on the brand, which is FAR HIGHER than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which averages 55 percent.
This makes agave actually WORSE than HFCS.
It is important to understand that fructose does not increase insulin levels, which is not necessarily good as what it does do is radically increase insulin resistance, which is FAR more dangerous. You see, it's okay for your insulin levels to rise, that is normal. You just don't want these insulin levels to remain elevated, which is what insulin resistance causes.
That is why fasting insulin is such a powerful test, as it is a very powerful reflection of your insulin resistance.
In addition to insulin resistance, your risk of liver damage increases, along with triglycerides and a whole host of other health problems, as discussed in this CBC News video about the newly discovered dangers of high fructose corn syrup. The study discussed in this news report is about HFCS, however, it's well worth remembering that agave contains MORE fructose than HFCS, and in all likelihood, it's the FRUCTOSE that is causing these severe liver problems.
How Agave is Grown and Produced Proves it is Unnatural
Agaves grow primarily in Mexico, but you can also find them in the southern and western United States, as well as in South America. Agaves are not cacti, but succulents of the yucca family, more closely related to amaryllis and other lilies. Edible parts of the agave are the flowers, leaves, stalks and the sap.
A mature agave is 7 to 12 feet in diameter with leaves that are 5 to 8 feet tall -- an impressive plant in stature, to be sure. There are over 100 species of agave, in a wide variety of sizes and colors.
Although the industry wants you to believe that agave nectar runs straight from the plant and into your jar, nothing could not be farther from the truth.
In spite of manufacturer's claims, most agave "nectar" is not made from the sap of the yucca or agave plant but from its pineapple-like root bulb[i]. The root has a complex carbohydrate called inulin, which is made up of fructose molecules.
The process which many, if not most, agave producers use to convert this inulin into "nectar" is VERY similar to the process by which cornstarch is converted into HFCS1.
Though processing methods can differ among manufacturers, most commercially available agave is converted into fructose-rich syrup using genetically modified enzymes and a chemically intensive process involving caustic acids, clarifiers, and filtration chemicals[ii]. Here is a partial list of the chemicals many producers use:
Cationic and ionic resins
Sulfuric and/or hydrofluoric acid
How natural does this sound?
The result is highly refined fructose syrup, along with some remaining insulin.
Most agave "nectar" is neither safe nor natural with laboratory-generated fructose levels of more than 80 percent!
Is There Really a "Safe" Organic Agave?
Part of the problem leading to the confusion is that there are some natural food companies that are indeed committed to excellence and in providing the best product possible. But let me assure you that in the agave industry, this is the minority of companies.
Nevertheless, these ethical companies seek to provide an outstanding product. There are a few companies who commit to and actually achieve these criteria and actually:
Work with the indigenous people,
Use organic agave as the raw material, free of pesticides
Process it at low temperatures to preserve all the natural enzymes
Produce a final agave product that is closer to 50% fructose instead of over 90%
Fructose is bonded or conjugated to other sugars and not floating around as "free" fructose, like HFCS, which is far more damaging.
The VAST majority of companies however do not apply these principles and essentially produce a product that is, as this articles states, FAR worse than HFCS.
If you are going to use agave you will certainly want to seek out one of the companies that adhere to the principles above. However you will still need to exert caution in using it.
Just like fruit it is quantity issue. Fructose only becomes a metabolic poison when you consume it in quantities greater than 25 grams a day. If you consume one of the typical agave preparations that is one tablespoon, assuming you consume ZERO additional fructose in your diet, which is VERY unlikely since the average person consumes 70 grams per day.
Even a hundred years ago, long prior to modern day food processing, the average person consumed 15 grams a day.
Listen to YOUR Body
Many people will not be convinced by my arguments and data. They certainly can choose to do that but they are only hurting themselves. Fortunately there is a very simple way to learn if the fructose level you are consuming is safe.
When you consume fructose over 25 grams per day it will very likely increase its metabolic byproduct, uric acid, in your blood. So you can go to your physician and have a simple uric acid level done.
This is not a fasting test and is very inexpensive to do, it's typically free with many automated chemistry profiles.
If your level is above 5.0 you will want to consider reducing your fructose level until the level drops below 5.0. This will provide you with a valid, objective parameter to let you know if the information I am sharing is correct for you and your family.
Sales are Sweet for Agave Companies and Bad for You and Your Family
Growing consumer resistance to HFCS has been a hole-in-one for the agave industry. Need a healthy alternative to those evil HFS products?
Agave syrup to the rescue!
In case you doubt the influence of marketing in setting trends and consumer buying habits, look at these statistics:[iii]
New agave products more than tripled in number between 2003 and 2007, from 56 to 176. Agave syrup is now appearing in products such as energy bars, cereals and organic ice creams.
Revenues for the category "other liquid sweeteners," which includes agave, rose to more than $10.3 million in 2007, which was a 50 percent jump from 2006.
McCormick & Co., a major food manufacturer, placed agave syrup in its "top 10 flavors" list for 2009.
Two of Mexico's largest agave syrup manufacturers, Iidea and Nekutli, are sending increasingly large shipments of agave syrup to Germany, Japan and New Zealand due to growing global popularity.
Agave is also quickly crossing over from the health food market to mainstream grocery chains, restaurants and taverns, and consumers (especially vegans and raw food enthusiasts) are replacing their honey and maple syrup with bottles of agave after being duped into believing it's a more healthful alternative.
The Myth of Agave as a "Healthy" Sugar Substitute
It's important for you and your family's health to remember that agave syrup is neither healthy nor natural.
As reported by Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health:
"Agave is almost all fructose, a highly processed sugar with great marketing."
Agave syrup is not low calorie -- it has about 16 calories per teaspoon, the same as sucrose (table sugar). The glycemic index is immaterial, once you understand the full extent of the risk this product poses to your health.
The consumption of high amounts of sugar is what is inflating America's waistline, as well as escalating rates of diabetes, blood pressure and heart disease.
Although overall sugar consumption is definitely something to be concerned about, even more problematic is one type of sugar that wreaks extraordinary havoc on your body: FRUCTOSE.
And if you want fructose, agave products next to pure fructose, have the highest percentage of fructose of any sweeteners on the market, over 50 percent more fructose than high fructose corn syrup.
Why You Need to Understand Why Fructose is so Important
All sugars are not created equal, in spite of what you might have been told.
Glucose is the form of energy your cells were actually designed to run on. Every cell in your body, every bacterium -- and in fact, nearly every living thing on the Earth -- uses glucose for energy.
But as a country, regular cane sugar, or sucrose (50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose), is no longer the sugar of choice. It's now fructose.
This happened in the 1970s as a result of technology that made HFCS far less expensive to produce. Believe me, it was NOT done for its health benefits. This was purely an economic decision.
Let me clear up any confusion here, as fructose is the primary sugar in most fruits. It isn't that fructose is intrinsically evil -- it is just the MASSIVE DOSES you and your family are exposed to that makes it dangerous. Because it is so cheap and makes foods taste so much better, it is added to virtually every processed food.
There are two overall reasons fructose is so damaging:
Your body metabolizes fructose in a much different way than glucose. Fructose is broken down in your liver just like alcohol and produces many of the side effects of chronic alcohol use, right down to the "beer belly"
People are consuming fructose in quantities that are 400-800 percent higher than they were 100 years ago due to its pervasive presence in just about all processed foods
Fructose Turns to Fat and Makes You Fat!
Unlike fructose which is nearly exclusively broken down in your liver and is directly converted to dangerous fats. This is one of the reasons why fructose is the leading cause of obesity. However, only 20 percent of glucose is metabolized in your liver. This is related to the fact that nearly every cell in your body can directly use glucose as a fuel source, so it's normally "burned up" immediately after consumption.
It is also important to understand that the fructose in fruits and vegetables is not the same fructose molecule you'll find in synthetic high-fructose corn syrup, which is manufactured in the lab. Naturally occurring fructose comes along with fiber, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, whereas fructose sweeteners have no nutritional value at all.
Additionally it is actually attached to other sugars and molecules and needs to be broken down before it is absorbed which limits the damage it causes. In HFCS it is a free fructose molecule, just as the glucose. Because these sugars are in their free forms their absorption is radically increased and you actually absorb far more of them had they been in their natural joined state which would cause a higher percentage of the fructose to pass to the intestine unabsorbed.
But the menace of fructose doesn't stop there.
Fructose also elevates your uric acid levels, which is actually more dangerous than elevated cholesterol levels as it causes chronic, low-level inflammation, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, arthritis and premature aging.
Fructose also "tricks" your body into gaining weight by fooling your metabolism -- it actually severely impairs your body's normal appetite-control systems.
Excessive fructose rapidly leads to weight gain and abdominal obesity ("beer belly"), decreased HDL, increased LDL, elevated triglycerides, elevated blood sugar, and high blood pressure -- i.e., classic metabolic syndrome.
Fructose metabolism is very similar to alcohol metabolism, which has a multitude of toxic effects, including NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease). Metabolically it's very similar to drinking alcohol without the buzz.
Remember to RADICALLY Reduce Your Fructose
These biological changes are not seen when humans or animals eat starch (or glucose), suggesting that fructose is a "bad carbohydrate" when consumed in excess of 25 grams per day.
However, it is important to remember that because fructose is so cheap it is added to nearly all processed foods. So even if you are seeking to eliminate it from your diet you will EASILY exceed 25 grams per day because it is "hidden" in so many foods. This is made worse by the deceptive and lax labeling laws which frequently allow gigantic loopholes for agribusiness to include it in the product and not identify it.
Making matters worse, your body easily becomes sensitized to fructose.
Fructose activates its own pathways in your body -- those metabolic pathways become "upregulated." In other words, the more fructose you eat, the more effective your body is in absorbing it; and the more you absorb, the more damage you'll do.
You become "sensitized" to fructose as time goes by, and more sensitive to its toxic effects as well.
Let me be clear that it isn't fructose that is the problem -- but excessive fructose. And especially the concentrated amounts of fructose that your body was never designed to process, such as what's in HFCS and most agave syrup.
Agave nectar is even worse than HFCS because it's even higher in fructose than HFCS (80 percent and higher), making it an even worse metabolic menace.
Other Reasons You Should Steer Clear of Agave
Poor Quality Control. There are very few quality controls in place to monitor the production of agave syrup. Most agave sold in the U.S. comes from Mexico. Industry insiders are concerned that the majority of agave producers are using lesser, even toxic, agave plants due to a shortage of blue agave.
Pesticides. There are also concerns that some distributors are cutting agave syrup with corn syrup -- how often and to what extent is anyone's guess. In addition, the FDA has refused shipments of agave syrup due to excessive pesticide residues.
Saponins. Agave is known to contain large amounts of saponins. Saponins are toxic steroid derivatives, capable of disrupting red blood cells and producing diarrhea and vomiting. There is also a possible link between saponins and miscarriage by stimulating blood flow to the uterus, so if you're pregnant, you should definitely avoid agave products.
Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). Some agave syrups contain a contaminant called hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF, also called 5-hydroxymethyl furfural), an organic heat-formed compound that arises in the processing of fructose -- in both agave syrup and HFCS. HMF has potential toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic effects[iv]. HMF is EXTREMELY toxic to honey bees, which is a problem since commercial beekeepers feed HFCS to the bees to stimulate honey production when field-gathered nectar sources are scarce[v].
Nutrient Void. Agave syrup is not a whole food -- nearly every brand is fractionated and processed, devoid of the nutrients contained in the original, whole plant.
Enzymes. Agave syrup is not a live food. The natural enzymes are removed by most companies to prevent agave syrup from fermenting and turning into tequila in your food pantry or cabinet.
Addictiveness. Agave is, for all intents and purposes, highly concentrated sugar. Sugar and sweeteners wreak havoc on your health and are highly addictive.