What’s the deal with agave nectar?

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?)!

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4 thoughts on “What’s the deal with agave nectar?

  1. I saw this linked on a post on thekitchn.com. As a professor of nutrition, I just wanted to share a couple things with you that might be interesting (and if you are interested in credentials, I have a MS in nutrition but am not a Registered Dietitian just yet).

    First, you mention hydrolyzing the slurry into fructose as being a point of concern. I know it sounds scientific and like something that occurs in a lab, but a hydrolysis reaction is just one where two units are broken by the addition of one molecule of water. It happens continually in your digestive tract – we eat foods in whole components, but these need to be absorbed in individual or small units (such as a monosaccharide, or one sugar molecule) so these whole foods (whether they are starches, sugars, proteins, or fats) are hydrolyzed by our digestive enzymes. The enzymes used to make agave nectar may be synthetic, but they are performing the same function that would be performed in your body. (Also, enzymes are deactivated by heat and acidity – so enzymes used in processing of something like agave would be denatured during the processing and, even if the heat wasn’t sufficient to do so, would never survive the acidic environment of a human stomach.)

    Also, you say that it is hydrolyzed into fructose – chemically, it wouldn’t be just fructose. Solid sugars we eat are comprised of sucrose, as you say – which is one fructose and one glucose linked together (and again, for absorption, those units are hydrolyzed to be absorbed as their individual components.) In liquid sugars (which includes honey, agave, maple syrup, and, yes, corn syrup) – those units have already been separated, but the result is an even mixture of glucose and fructose molecules. (In high fructose molecules, some of those glucose molecules are converted chemically into fructose, giving a mixture of about 55% fructose and 45% glucose.) There is some continued research going on about metabolism of fructose – to me, it is not conclusive. I think with normal intake, any difference with metabolism of fructose would not be big enough to make a big difference, but I can’t speak definitively about that.

    So my opinion based on science (which you haven’t asked for, so I’m sorry for this monologue!) is that sugar is sugar. The components and caloric value are the same among all of the different varieties. Processing may take place in a factory, but that doesn’t affect the sugar’s nutritional makeup or the way the body uses it. Different sugars have different flavors because of nonnutritive components contained within, but again – this does not change the nutritional composition. In excess in any form, sugar is pretty equally bad for you – things like raw honey might have antioxidants or bee pollen or something contained within, but the amount is not sufficient to create a benefit that would outweigh the problems of consuming an excessive amount of honey. So I think, choose what you like and what tastes best to you – I think then you are apt to maybe use a little less, because you like the flavors, thereby reducing the overall amount of added sugar in your diet.

    I think it would make more sense to shift the conversation from picking apart nutritional minutiae to discussing our general sensibilities about how much technology we want in our lives. From my perspective, I believe that all forms of sugar are generally the same nutritionally, but I still like to live my life with as little impact as I can. I like the feeling of self-reliance and knowing less electricity went into creating the things I have – not just food, but throughout my life – and this is based more on my general outlook, rather than my nutrition beliefs. Frankly, the nutritional arguments don’t really stand up to science, but an argument that less processing requires less use of machinery which means less pollution…maybe that is a much more powerful way to get a similar message out.

    • Thank you for the great comment! Your correction on the products of hydrolysis is duly noted and I’ll fix that in the post (you’re bringing me back to my undergraduate days in organic chemistry…or was that biochemistry? I was never very good at either!).

      The “is sugar just sugar?” debate seems to be raging, with scientists with good data supporting both positions. It seems some people think that whether the hydrolysis process happens internally or externally is irrelevant, other seem to think that a pre-hydrolized version causes people to eat a bigger load of fructose at a given sitting, which they claim isn’t processed well by our bodies. I’m hardly qualified to put the final word in there. And, truthfully, I agree that it’s probably just best to limit sugar intake than trifle too much about where the sugar comes from.

      Regardless, as you astutely say, the question is probably less about the science than about our personal values…and that’s the part that gets my ire about agave! The agave producers of the world have totally exploited many people’s desire for a natural alternative sweetener and created that mental picture I used to have, of agave nectar being tenderly extracted from the agave plant, to sell their product. Because of a successful marketing campaign, agave has been taken up in full force from many people who advocate simple, natural foods. It definitely doesn’t meet my definition of a simple, natural food, though. I wish it would stop getting mixed up in the world of natural foods recipes.

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