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Is Agave Nectar (Agave Syrup) Healthy?
Is agave nectar good for you?
Short answer: not particularly. Certainly not any healthier than sugar or the vilified high-fructose corn syrup, which, incidentally is almost its equivalent with respect to its composition.
Agave Nectar (also more prosaically, and more correctly, called Agave Syrup) is made from the processed nectar of the agave plant, that wondrous Central American plant that gave us tequila, which is made of fermented agave nectar. Agave nectar has become enormously popular among vegans and, strangely (I'll explain in a bit), raw foodists.
So why is agave touted as "good for you", "healthier", and "gentle on the body" (all taken from product labels I saw in my local natural grocer)? Because usually those making those claims have absolutely no understanding of science, and invent quackery on the fly. Remember, these are the same folks who told us that chocolate/cocoa was deadly, for decades, and that we should eat considerably less-flavorful carob instead, when it turns out chocolate is actually quite good for you. There are plenty of reasons to be more than a little skeptical.
Let's take a look at what agave nectar really is, before we think it's healthy just because it came from a plant (as do sugar and HFCS.):
- agave nectar is primarily composed of inulin, a polysaccharide that acts like fiber in the system
- inulin is not really sweet so it must be processed (usually by heat) to convert it into fructose, primarily, which is sweet
- it must be boiled down, regardless of how the inulin is converted to fructose, in order to reduce a thin nectar into a thicker syrup (so it is most certainly not a "raw"/"live" food product)
- agave nectar is 56-92% fructose, with the rest mostly glucose
- HFCS, vilified as much as agave nectar is worshipped, is 55% fructose, the rest glucose. Yes, almost the same exact composition as some agave syrup.
But HFCS is processed! So is agave nectar. But agave nectar has a lower glycemic index than sugar! So does HFCS. I mean, they're pretty much the exact same thing, except agave is made from a Mayan polysaccharide feedstock, and HFCS is made from an American one.
So, the biggest difference, except for the fact that agave nectar is imported from a much longer distance so as to incur a much larger carbon footprint, is that agave can have a higher percentage of fructose than glucose.
If you're a diabetic, that's good, because that means its glycemic index is lower.
If you're not a diabetic, its lower glycemic index is not nearly as important, and there's even greater cause for concern than with HFCS or table sugar. Fructose has a few problems over glucose:
- it doesn't induce the same level of satiety as glucose, so people drink/eat more of foods that are sweetened with fructose
- fructose creates more than double the advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), harmful chemical species that age (no pun intended) the human body, in the bloodstream than glucose
- fructose raises blood triglyceride levels, a marker for heart disease, higher than glucose does
- in mice, fructose induced obesity, and it has been suspected to do the same in humans, in addition to increasing the likelihood of metabolic syndrome
More here on the health effects of fructose.
What's more, sucrose, rebranded recently as "evaporated cane juice" (to somehow hide the fact that it's the same C&H stuff we've been consuming for decades), is almost identical to both the supposedly deadly HFCS and the purportedly salubrious agave nectar: it's a disaccharide (made of two sugars), composed of 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Sound familiar?
What all this boils down to is that these 3 sugars - sucrose, HFCS, and agave - are almost identical from a health perspective. The fact that Mayans cultivate the agave does not make it a magically healthy alternative to table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, it's produced almost identically to the latter.
If you want something sweet, go ahead - just don't try to delude yourself that Mexican processed sugar is any healthier than the American variety, regardless of whether that American sugar comes from cane or corn.