© 2008 Nancy Appleton PhD and G.N. Jacobs
We get asked about every new sweetener put out by the purveyors of unhealthy sweetness and agave nectar or syrup is the most recent. Put a gun to our heads and we’ll tell you not to eat it. Actually, we’ll do that without the pistol and dramatics, we’re quite consistent that way.
Our basic position is always in favor of whole foods, because when a food processor converts a naturally sugary food like an apple or generous hunk of agave cactus into a syrup or nectar everything good about the whole food is lost in the production vat. Whole foods have fiber, vitamins and nutrients that enrich the body and in some cases slow down the sugar hit to the body that comes from glucose and fructose. So when a food distributor converts this semi-solid goodness into liquid sweetness, you are loading the revolver for a game of Russian roulette.
In the specific case of agave, the debate comes down to whether glucose or fructose is more harmful to the body. Natural agave, the plant from which tequila is derived, is approximately half and half glucose to fructose. The nectar or syrup appears to be primarily all fructose according to published statistics from agave distributors.
Now is fructose better for you than glucose or sucrose? If you listen to the fructose manufacturers and some diabetes experts, then yes fructose is better for you. Fructose doesn’t raise glucose levels in the bloodstream, which means that there is less of an insulin response and a consequent benefit to diabetics because insulin management is the name of the game.
But, is spiking up on fructose any better for anyone whether diabetic or not? Doctor Appleton and others say No! Fructose has been linked to raised triglycerides, more belly fat and contributes to fatty liver disease, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, which can all be collected together as Metabolic Syndrome. Doctor Appleton has included these views on fructose in her upcoming book Suicide by Sugar.
Agave seems to have other drawbacks related to its fructose content, but that require comment separately from the basic fructose debate. The first one that sets our teeth on edge is the thought that agave nectar might not actually be agave nectar.
According to reporting by the Chicago Tribune, products labeled as being from the blue agave plant may in fact be mostly corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup. Tequila manufacturers get first call on the expensive blue agave cactus that grows in Mexico. There are strict requirements for tequila to come from the blue agave in the same way the German Beer Purity Law says beer is wheat or barley, hops, water and fermenting yeast. So the nectar producers have a demand for agave that can’t be met by supply and decide to cut what agave they have with similar corn-based fructose.
“Agave is really chemically refined hydrolyzed high-fructose syrup and not from the blue agave plant, organic or raw, as claimed,” says Russ Bianchi, a food and beverage formulator.
So far the Food and Drug Administration sees no reason to regulate agave for any safety concerns, but admits that agave products may have been “economically adulterated and misbranded by adding corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup.”
The Chicago Tribune also reports some less well-documented effects of agave nectar consumption that may be a concern. Apparently, some agave products and other sweeteners may have botulism spores and thus shouldn’t be given to small children. There are assertions that agave may cause miscarriages and/or other harm to pregnant or lactating mothers and agave, like many other sugary products, has also been linked to increased acne.
Agave does have some possible health benefits touted by its proponents. As stated, glucose levels aren’t raised. Agave is loaded with inulin, a complex sub-variant of fructose, which is broken down by friendly bacteria to make fatty acids that may fight colon cancer. Additionally, agave may have some anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. But, these effects are hotly debated.
“It’s almost all fructose, highly processed sugar with great marketing,” says Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt of the American College of Nutrition and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “Fructose interferes with healthy metabolism when taken at higher doses. Many people have fructose intolerance like lactose intolerance. They get acne or worse diabetes symptoms even though blood glucose is OK.”
Even some agave proponents like Dave Grotto, a Registered Dietician and author of 101 Foods that Could Save Your Life, will admit that “excess consumption of any sweetener is not wise. But, honey and agave are value-added sweeteners, if used moderately.”
If the best the pro-agave people can come up with for their product is use in moderation, then that should really be read as avoid as much as possible. Doctor Appleton has also written some information about sugar addiction in Sweet Suicide and her earlier work Lick the Sugar Habit. If sugar, fructose, honey, agave, stevia and other sweeteners can lead to addiction, then how is the average person to know what in moderation actually means? How much is too much before a small dose of agave that may help with cancer and inflammation becomes a mainline hit of fructose to the bloodstream and liver?
Doctor Appleton’s answer is usually less than 2 teaspoons a day for any refined sweetener to avoid the many related health effects. We live in the same world you do and we understand about occasionally unavoidable and falling off the wagon, but any sweetener removed from its natural state is a refined sweetener that should be avoided as much as possible. Agave is no different. Now you know.
Suicide by Sugar Nancy Appleton PhD 2008 Square One Publishers
Lick the Sugar Habit Nancy Appleton PhD 1996 Avery