If you’re wondering around the health section at your local grocer, it will be hard not to find a product toting Agave nectar. The ads for agave nectar consist of claims that it is low glycemic and safe for diabetics. Some even make far fetched claims of antioxidant power or anti-inflammatory properties. The real truth is “Agave syrup (nectar) is basically high-fructose corn syrup masquerading as a health food.” – Jonny Bowden, world renowned doctor and nutritionist.
Truth 1: Agave nectar is low glycemic. But this is not because it has a low sugar content, or low carbohydrate content. Table sugar and high fructose corn syrup are two processed sugars that are basically identical. They are both a near 50/50 combination of two sugars, glucose and fructose. Glucose is the fuel of life. Every cell in your body can use glucose, and when your body stores carbohydrate energy in lean tissue, it does so in the form of stacked glucose molecules called glycogen. Your liver stores glycogen to provide your body with glucose between meals so you don’t pass out from lack of brain function and low blood sugar.
Agave nectar has a low glycemic index because it contains very little glucose and usually around 80-90% fructose. Fructose is the part of sugar and high fructose corn syrup that is behind most of the chronic health conditions. In other words, it is the bad part of sugar. Fructose causes insulin resistance and significantly raises triglycerides (a risk factor for heart disease). It also increases fat around the middle, which in turn puts you at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and Metabolic Syndrome (AKA pre-diabetes). Fructose has even been linked to non-alcoholic, fatty-liver disease. In fact, fructose is metabolized almost exactly like alcohol in the body. The only real difference between fructose and alcohol is that the brain is not affected by fructose like it is alcohol, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, because at least with alcohol, the effects are obvious right away. Fructose is a slow, silent toxin to the body.
Fructose, found naturally in fruits and vegetables, is perfectly fine when you get it from whole foods, because it is usually a very small amount and comes with a host of vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. This is why eating an apple can be considered healthy, but drinking apple juice is a great way to add to your love handles. When it’s commercially extracted from fruit, concentrated and made into a sweetener, it is just as bad as sugar or high fructose corn syrup, if not worse.
Truth 2: Agave nectar does not provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. There is a natural fiber in the Agave plant called inulin that does have some health properties, but by the time it is processed and broken down by enzymes to get out the sweet fructose, there is little to no inulin left. In fact a high fructose diet is considered to be pro inflammatory.
Truth 3: Agave nectar should not be used by diabetics. This is a case of short term thinking. Agave nectar will not spike blood sugar because it has to be processed by the liver, much like alcohol. So in short term, this would not cause an issue for the diabetic. However, the big picture is the high fructose consumption from the Agave nectar will actually worsen the disease by increasing insulin resistance.
Conclusion: I would say Agave nectar is possibly the worst natural or sugar based sweetener aside from pure fructose. People envision this colorful plant out in the wild that is delivering this miracle sweetener that is just too good to be true. Well you know what they say, if it seems to good to be true, it usually is. The long term effects of using high fructose sweeteners like Agave, far out-weigh the short term benefits. Even though it does not lead to an increase in insulin, it does lead to the liver’s fat storing process increasing vLDL (bad cholesterol) and creating the enzyme cascade that tells your body to store fat. Nature does not want you to eat high fructose foods. Sugar is a stick you can’t even chew and honey is guarded by bees. So don’t bite on the hype. Stick with whole foods and if you need a sweetener, stevia is a great natural choice. If you’re going to eat a fruit sugar, you should be consuming the whole fruit, not a syrup, juice, or sugary extract.