I’ve been hearing a lot of conflicting stories about agave nectar. I’ve heard vague rumblings that agave nectar is unnatural, bad for you, etc. But, my local coffee shops still serve it alongside the other coffee condiments, Dr. Oz raves about how it’s a natural product on Oprah, and I still have a bottle in the house. So, what’s the deal? Is agave nectar healthy or not? Looking at my bottle of agave today, I was deciding whether I should keep it or ditch it.
My motivation for using agave came out previous rumors that it’s organic, natural and (sometimes) raw. I thought it was a healthier sweetener, given its relatively low ranking on the glycemic index. I’m actually not a die hard fan of its taste, but it’s unique…and I like it in a few cocktail recipes (which may defeat the healthy part, but whatever).
Digging around the internet there’s a plethora of articles on how agave nectar is not, as I liked to imagine, handmade on quaint cactus farms in Mexico. I used to picture it being carefully squeezed from each little agave leaf (like how I can squeeze aloe gel out my Aloe vera cactus). Instead, it’s made from the starchy heart of the agave plant. This starchy root-like part is blended into a slurry, and then mixed with enzymes and heat. During this process the starches hydrolyze into fructose and glucose. For the “raw” agave nectar the process is the same, but the temperature is kept lower.
An agave plant we saw at the UC-Berkeley botanical garden.
Hydrolyzing a starch and turning it into a sweet tasting syrup of fructose and glucose? Sound familiar? This is more or less what happens in the production of corn syrup. And corn syrup is a very controversial product (mainly because of its constituent sugar, fructose). I have a hard time imagining my local coffee shops serving corn syrup on the coffee bar. I don’t keep corn syrup around the house. Similarly, I think it’s time to give my agave nectar the heave-ho.
Of course, there’s another debate which follows closely on the heels of this one: Is eating fructose actually bad for you? While agave nectar and corn syrup are comprised of fructose and glucose, most other sugars we consume are sucrose. As evidenced by all the pro-corn syrup ads on TV and in magazines these days, there are people bitterly fighting to prove both sides of the pro-fructose and anti-fructose arguments. I haven’t read anything about the health impacts of fructose yet that I’ve found truly convincing, so I’m going to stay out of this argument for today. In the mean time, though, I’m going to choose to stick with minimally processed sweeteners, like evaporated cane juice, molasses, honey and maple syrup. I doubt eating agave nectar or corn syrup (in moderation!) is going to kill anyone any time soon, but neither product sits right with me.
I’m bummed about how the words organic and raw have been totally taken advantage of in the marketing of agave syrup. While, technically, it may be both of these things, the bottom line is that it’s a highly processed food which should be categorized alongside corn syrup, not as a natural alternative sweetener.
Here are a couple more articles if you want more information:
I wanted to insert a dramatic picture here of me pouring the agave nectar down the drain, but Alex thought we should keep it for the aforementioned cocktails. Instead, here’s a picture of some of the preferred sweeteners we have around the house…and, yes, that honey is really old (does it go bad?)!