Whole Living Daily

Agave Nectar: The Backlash. Should We Panic?

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When choosing any sweetener, it's wise to use in moderation. And not freak out and swear them all off because of one thing you read online.

Agave nectar, which has been gaining popularity as an alternative sweetener, is a syrup composed primarily of fructose and harvested from the blue agave plant (which is also the plant that gives us tequila).

Fructose has been shown to make our blood sugar spike far less dramatically than sucrose (table sugar), which is why agave is often considered a suitable choice for diabetics. It’s also a good option for strict vegans, who don’t consume honey, and for people with food allergies, since it’s allergen free.

This year, two articles threatened to knock agave off of its throne.

First, Natural News published an article by a Canadian journalist that likened agave to high fructose corn syrup (the highly processed sweetener that has been definitively linked to obesity). Next, Joseph Mercola, a writer who’s known for stirring up controversy on his website, piggybacked off of the Natural News article and publicly declaimed on his site. Within weeks, the agave backlash was in full force.

Anyone in the health biz learns that manias and refutations are commonplace. What’s important is that we as consumers know how to separate alarmism from truth.

A Closer Look at Agave

So let’s look at the accusations against agave. Sure, it’s valid to note that agave is made through hydrolyzing and heating, and that it’s thus a “processed” food. But does that mean that it’s automatically a health hazard? Not necessarily.

Note that Rami Nagel’s original article is based mostly on the author’s own understanding of agave production, as well as conversations with manufacturers. He offers little Q & A with medical professionals, and his article isn’t founded upon robust evidence from clinical trials.

Mercola, meanwhile, declares that all fructose, regardless of its origin, will hinder weight loss; this isn’t a statement with which most mainstream doctors or RDs typically agree. Lab studies do suggest, however hazily, that fructose is safer for diabetics than sucrose.

And while high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has been proven dangerous in excess, we have yet to get a series of clinical studies suggesting that all forms of fructose (agave included) are similarly harmful. In other words, drawing a comparison between the production of agave and HFCS doesn’t necessarily mean that the products carry the same risks. Likewise, making blanket statements about the comparative risks of glucose, fructose, and sucrose is a risky business, especially when those statements don’t come from chemists or doctors.

Define "Healthy"

Beyond this, how “healthy” a food is isn’t only a matter of its chemical composition or production; it’s also a matter of how the food is consumed. If you’re dumping agave over every dish, you’d do best to take it easy. In general, it’s wise to use concentrated sweeteners (like agave, honey, or maple syrup) selectively.

I advise my clients use Stevia when they’re looking for a sweetener to add to beverages (like coffee), or if they want to sweeten a serving of food. In baked goods, salad dressings, or soups—in other words, when the sweetener will be evenly distributed throughout a dish, rather than consumed directly and in high concentration—it’s fine to use a bit of agave. It’s still a humane alternative for vegans, and while the jury’s out on whether or not it’s a “health food,” we don’t yet have enough clinical evidence to condemn it as harmful, either.

When inflammatory claims emerge (either positive or negative), it’s important to remember that the nutrition field is highly susceptible to alarmism. Wait until you’ve read more than one or even a few sources before you jump to conclusions, and try not to take information out of context. What may prove harmful in a clinical trial may yet be tolerable when consumed in moderation. Collect information, use common sense, and avoid the panic button.

Gena Hamshaw is a certified clinical nutritionist with an emphasis on plant-based nutrition. She writes about body image, green living, and a plant-based lifestyle on her popular blog, ChoosingRaw.com.

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Comments (40)

  • I'm wondering whether there's a difference between agave syrup that's labeled "raw" and syrup that isn't label as such. I know Nagel denounces this in his article, but I still wonder if it's possible to carry out the enzymatic conversion of starches in agave processing to fructose without heating. Enzymes are enzymes, after all, and don't necessarily need to work in heat. Does "raw" agave syrup exist?

  • [...] Since we’re on the topic of health claims — pro and con — I wanted to call your attention to my latest post for Whole Living Daily. Tons of you have written in asking me about agave: is it safe? Is it the same as high fructose corn syrup? I’ve avoided making bold statements about this since I’m not a chemist, doctor, or food manufacturer. But I am, at long last, offering my perspective on the heated debate. Check it out here! [...]

  • Aletheia --

    I'm not sure. I believe that the heating is necessary in at least low temperatures, which is why some brands get away with the "raw" claim. But I'm much less interested in whether agave is technically "raw" as I am in whether or not it is or isn't directly deleterious to my health!


  • Gena--

    I know. I was just being the undergraduate biochemist that I was educated to be.

  • It was a good question! Because a lot of people out there are very concerned with the heating (or lack thereof).

  • Interesting. I appreciate your unbiased look on it, Gena. I hate reading about the horrors of agave only to see it comes from the corn council or some other involved party.
    Personally, I use and choose agave as my primary sweetener because it's plant based like you mentioned, and it's not supporting the corn industry. From my own experience, I can say when I use stevia I feel constantly hungry and craving sweets which also doesn't happen with agave. But I can't prove or back up that with anything but my own experiences.

  • On top of just being a nerd in general, I also asked the "Raw" question because I think there is probably some ethical deduction that one could make: if a company will make false claims about their product being "raw", then it is (by deduction) an ethical suspect for making other false or misleading claims--or, in Nagel's point of view, no claims at all--with regards to labeling the product accurately (as "high fructose inulin syrup", which would be, by the way, deleterious to your health. And mine!)

    Finally, I asked the question because, as a half-nerd (I say half because I'm still only an undergraduate and thus must maintain some form of modesty), I know that there are basic enzymes, vitamins, and cofactors, which are NOT denatured in raw foods. Therefore, if these are active and included with the fructose that is chemically derived from the agave processing, the resultant product wouldn't be in its more harmful "isolated" or "free" state, which the human body has trouble recognizing and digesting, and Nagel's claim would then be wrong. Furthermore, a "raw" agave syrup would be less concentrated in fructose than a "non-raw" product (because of less evaporation of solvent), thereby evading the debatable issue of it having to be labeled as "High Fructose"--because it wouldn't be.

    In essence, I'm saying that if the existence of 'raw' agave syrup is ethically and biochemically valid, then -- regardless of the label 'raw' or not, because I personally really don't give a hoot -- it would present a moderately appropriate solution, not to mention a less deleterious-to-your-health, option, that those who still insist on using the product should consider.

  • All great feedback! This is precisely what I CAN'T offer readers, as a non-chemist. But you can, and I can offer my take on the tone and likelihood of the claims, at least.

  • Ultimately, I guess the only way to find out would be to visit an agave syrup processing facility myself. :-)

    OK I've got to stop spamming the comments section!


  • Gena, I think you're wise to be skeptical of these various reports that don't have first-hand knowledge of the production of agave syrup and that slide into isomorphic comparisons to HCFS. However, if it is accepted that the inulin in agave is hydrolyzed into simple sugars (even if this process is different from the ones used to produce HCFS), then do we know what the real compositional difference is between the two (outside of the Fr/Gl ratio)? Are there micronutrients in the agave that might mediate its metabolism? The articles you cited claim there are none, but do others dispute this? Is some of the inulin still intact? I have no background in biochemistry, so I'm not sure if these are germane questions.

    I understand that we don't have the clinical studies for agave consumption (as we do for HCFS) to make direct health claims, but, without this information, is there any warrant to assert that agave and HCFS are different *in composition*?

  • Aletheia,

    You don't have to visit an agave processing facility, because Vanessa (of Gnosis chocolate) and Doug (GM at Luna and Larry's, makers of Coconut Bliss), have both visited their agave suppliers:

    Here's Vanessa's "Agave Report": http://www.gnosischocolate.com/agave-report/

    And Doug's is here: http://coconutbliss.blogspot.com/2010/03/doug-visits-our-agave-farm-part-1-of.html

    My favorite sweetener is raw honey, and I use it every day. However, raw honey is really not supposed to be heated, so I will occasionally use agave when I need a neutral tasting sweetener that can be heated. I have NOT had good results using agave as a sweetener in tea or in green juice (it makes me feel immediately unbalanced), so I was using it sparingly even before the controversy. That said, it is an ingredient in two of my very favorite products (see above), and I don't fret about it at all.

  • Chris,

    Following along with Aletheia's comments, let's suppose we're talking about agave labeled as raw (or heated at 118 degrees), which is the agave I know most about:

    From what I understand, the process of making HFCS involves a number of chemicals that include hydrochloric acid, and very high temperatures. Whereas, when agave is heated gently, the inulin in it breaks down the sugars naturally.

    This is what I *think* may be a major, major difference in production.

    Compositionally, I can't tell you without a doubt that they aren't very similar (though agave hasn't been studied as much, so we'd still need to reserve some judgement). But perhaps the inulin does create some distinctions.

    I know that's not a scientific ruling! But I hope it's something.


  • Thanks. You both raise, for me, the strongest potential reason why agave syrup might be different from HCFS: that it contains stuff that might mediate the deleterious effects of the sugars in our bodies? We buy the Ultimate Superfoods agave (http://bit.ly/7mhIBd), which US claims has a high inulin content and minerals. But the whole process/industry is so nebulous:

    "During this period we capture this precious fluid and put it through a proprietary natural process to deactivate specific enzymes in order to keep it from fermenting. The result is Ultimate SuperFoods' Raw Agave."

    Very helpful.

  • the president Madhava Agave wrote a fantastic response to the backlash:


  • Wow, Aletheia, girlfriend, your braincells are working in overdrive.

    Gena thanks for tackling the issue.

    I keep it simple with all this stuff..moderation, common sense, don't stress, life is about shades of gray, who cares if it's raw, not, heated, not, if it cures cancer, causes world peace or can vacuum my house. I just do the best I can, with common sense, not stressing b/c the STRESSING about this stuff is likely MUCH more harmful to us than whatever "Evil" lurks in the product.

    My .02 of course :)

  • Great article, Gena! As long as the bulk of one's calories comes from fresh, whole foods, there's nothing wrong with adding a tablespoon or two of agave to a raw dish every so often.


  • [...] you add any sweetener to your oats? What is your sweetener of choice? Have you read Gena’s post about Agave? I am usually a stevia girl (NuNaturals is preferred), but I have been known to also use maple or [...]

  • Having seen first-hand the production process of agave, I can tell you a few important points to consider when reading many of these claims: 1. Agave syrup is minimally processed, without additives of chemicals, in sharp comparison to HFCS (Bianchi, who tried to market his own alternative sweetener, has it wrong and hasn't corrected his patently false statements); 2. Agave nectar (particularly the raw variety) contains up to 5% inulin (probiotic fiber), and trace nutrients including calcium, iron, and vitamins B and C (so it is not a lab-created fructose; but rather a plant-based simple sugar produced by heat) 3. If you get the chance to visit one of the major manufacturers of agave nectar in Jalisco, you will learn that the production and heating temperature is taken very seriously. So most of the brands on the shelves that are marketed as "raw" are heated at temps less than 118 degrees F.

    Lastly, I think it is funny to get so caught up with the "raw" definition of not exceeding 118 degrees. Consider the temps in the fields, inside the agave plant, in the volcanic soils of Jalisco, in the middle of summer - I think the plant itself endures temps above that naturally.

    There are many good, honest companies that make and sell agave nectar - you will find them at stores like Whole Foods, etc. I love agave nectar (in moderation) for a few reasons - I don't get the blood-sugar spike and crash; it tastes great in my coffee and also in my margaritas (can Stevia do that?); and its organic and plant-based :)

  • Awesome comment, David. Thank you!

  • [...] wrote a great article about the great agave debate which I whole heartedly support and agree with. Sugar is still sugar and while I don’t think [...]

  • Hi Everyone,
    I work for a small agave producer and our heads are spinning from all the misinformation and panic about agave syrup.
    Truth be told, we have tested some agave out there at an independent lab and have found that some companies cut their agave syrup with HFCS to cut costs.
    But I will just add one thing to David's well informed comment above: Agve syrup is not made by processing the "starch like bulb of the agave plant." Agave is not starch! If you cut open the bulb of the blue agave plant, you will see liquid inside. It is a naturally occurring sweetener. We just heat the agave to evaporate the water to make our blue agave syrup thicker. That's it.

  • Re: Tammy's comments - I think its only fair that since you have suggested that some agave companies "cut their agave syrup with HFCS to cut costs" that you back up this claim with the names of the brands, and where specifically your company tested the samples. To anyone outside of the agave industry, it sounds plausible and creates a sense of general distrust to the industry. But having first-hand knowledge of almost all of the agave nectar producers (personally and professionally) I know that this is not true for these companies. It is really a stretch to think that agave nectar producers, who are mostal all 3rd generation agave growers, are going to risk their reputations, family heritage, and spend more money to buy "HFCS" when agave is plentifully grown on their own land. Your comments seem to fuel the notion that agave companies from Mexico cannot be trusted, and, therefore, only your brand (which you didn't mention) is trustworthy - so much so that you're company is testing the other companies that you compete against. Please support your claim - or be disregarded as part of the confusion.

  • Sorry - meant to write "mostly", not "mostal".

  • Hi David,
    Sorry, I did not mean that agave suppliers in Mexico cannot be trusted. All 100% Blue Agave comes from Mexico. We get our agave from Mexico. Agave companies in Mexico are highly regulated by the Mexican government, and anyone spiking their agave with HFCS while in Mexico could get thrown in jail.

    The company I work for started testing competitors agave nectar because the owner was curious about the nutritional panel on their labels because it looked wrong -- like it couldn't possibly be all agave or blue agave. When the results came back from the lab, corn and cane biproducts were found. That said, we're a small company and we don't have a lawyer, so I don't know if I can just start naming names here. We'd like to, and will have to get back to you with that info at another time.

  • [...] look into the history of the agave plant for her because there has been some controversy over the use of agave syrup in the last little while. As I will do almost anything for someone who feeds me, here is my short [...]

  • [...] look into the history of the agave plant for her because there has been some controversy over the use of agave syrup in the last little while. As I will do almost anything for someone who feeds me, here is my short [...]

  • [...] http://wholelivingdaily.wholeliving.com/2010/07/agave-nectar-the-backlash-should-we-panic.html http://www.3fatchicks.com/corn-syrup-vs-agave-nectar/ Posted 9 months ago [...]

  • [...] these days: first came the allegation that agave is identical to high fructose corn syrup (which I responded to over at Whole Living magazine). Nowadays, it seems as though many health experts are claiming that [...]

  • Tammy: could you maybe give us some companies that DO NOT spike their agave with HFCS??

  • I read something about gout being aggravated by fructose in general. This struck me because I was trying out agave just because it was the new thing. I was having increased pain in my finger joints and beginning to get pain in my toes as well... After I read the article on the fructose and gout, I stopped using it immediately. The pain began to ease up and was gone in days. I'm not going to say that everyone should stop using it, just pay attention to your personal experiences and use foods that don't make you feel bad in your quest to eat healthier. Maybe I used one of the brands that isn't pure or something as well... It was a well known brand and I thought it was organic, but its been a while since I used it.

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  • Thanks for your perspective on this. Very much appreciated.

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  • People make the agave issue difficult because it is fructose. Nothing is wrong with fructose in itself. Fructose is good. Fructose is in fruits. Fruits are good for you. Just because agave is concentrated fructose it is not the same thing as high fructose corn syrup. HFCS is toxic because of its unnatural chemical processing. Agave does not equal HFCS.
    The bad thing is that any concentrate sugar in large quantities is not good for you because it lacks the fiber and nutrients to regulate its absorption into the bloodstream. This goes for any concentrated sugar, well except for date sugar. Date sugar is basically ground dates that keep all of its nutrients.

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