The Great Agave Nectar Debate

Last Thursday afternoon in the sweeteners aisle at Whole Foods a mighty heated debate raged over the angelic and demonic qualities of pure cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, and stevia. It was a near argument and very entertaining. I walked away from it smiling and shaking my head over the “hipsterness” of the whole conversation because, seriously, you probably wouldn’t hear anything like this in Randalls, Kroger, or Safeway. Yet the conversation did get me thinking about my own relationship to sweeteners and what might really be the best choice.

I think we’re all clear by now that excess sugar in your diet is bad for you, causing all sorts of health problems ranging from dental decay to obesity and diabetes. So seriously…what can you indulge in once in a while that isn’t horrible for you? What’s life without sweetness after all?

I have been a dedicated agave fan for a number of years because it’s sweet like honey without the honey flavor and because of it’s low glycemic qualities, but some people think it’s awful stuff. This prompted me to educate myself. I started by looking at the label on my bottle of agave syrup, shown left. I can see the words “wholesome,” “organic,” “raw,” “low glycemic,” and “gluten free.” No wonder I bought it. But that’s just labeling and I don’t trust labels: they are mostly about getting you to reach for the product rather than telling you the truth. That’s a harsh reality, but it’s largely true.

So what about agave nectar? I knew it was made from the agave plant which has long been associated with healing properties. I knew it came from Mexico. I assumed it was healthy and an old school native sweetener. Well, as it turns out all of that is kind of true….kind of. There’s more to the story though.

Here is what is true:

  • Agave nectar does indeed come from the blue agave plant.
  • Blue agave really is grown in Mexico in volcanic soil or in the southwestern U.S.

Now the story starts falling apart. Here’s the bad stuff that isn’t publicized

  • There really is a sweetener made from the agave plant, but it’s not agave nectar
    The blue agave plant leaves are cut away from the central core, called a piña. The piñas are baked or steamed to get the sweet liquid out of the core. This sweet goo is indeed a sweetener that is native to the region of Tequila, Mexico. It called miel de agave, or agave honey. But this is not agave nectar.
  • Agave nectar is made from the root bulb which is high in a complex carbohydrate called inulin – basically a whole lot of fructose molecules. The sweet stuff isn’t as easy to get to here as it is in the piña. Agave nectar producers use a chemical soup to extract the sweet stuff out. When was the last time you went to the grocery store to purchase cationic or ionic resins, sulfuric or hydrofluoric acid, dicalite, clarimex, inulin enzymes, or fructozyme? What is this stuff? These are just some of the chemicals that are used to make agave nectar.

Much to my disappointment, I found that this is a highly processed sweetener. According to Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, from the American College of Nutrition (also an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health), “Agave is almost all fructose, a highly processed sugar with great marketing.” What a bummer. Another bummer is that it’s just not great for your health. Putting aside that the consumption of sugars and fructose is what is causing our teeth to rot, our bellies to get fat, and giving us type 2 diabetes at an alarming rate, the consumption of processed food is a killer as well.

So what do you do? Pick a sweetener that isn’t highly processed. This would be a food you could reasonably grow, harvest, and process yourself without chemicals, enzymes, or expensive specialized machinery. I’ll give you a list of better alternatives, but you’ve got to use your head about this – even the items listed below can be heavily processed. Make your choices wisely, read the labels knowing that the truth is often hidden from you in favor of getting into your pocket, and research the companies you buy from well.

Better sweetener alternatives that you could make in your kitchen if you wanted to and therefore better than processed anythings:

  • Stevia
    This one comes with a caveat. The white powdered stuff you buy in the store? That’s been super processed. Stay away from it. I’m talking about growing your own stevia plant on your patio or in your garden or getting it from the farmer’s market. Stevia is sweet to the tongue, but no sugar molecules are transferred into your system. Win! Use fresh or dried leaves in your tea. You can also make your own stevia extract using vodka and you can use that in your beverages, chocolate milk, coffee, even barbecue sauce. Good stuff.
  • Coconut palm sugar
    Minimally processed and you can use it where you would use granulated sugar.
  • Maple syrup
    Not the processed stuff, the organic tapped out of the tree stuff.
  • Miel de agave
    Hard to find unless you are in the Southwest, but it can be done.
  • Honey
    Make sure it’s raw and local for the best benefit. Supposed to be great to help you build up immunity to local allergies, but it has to be sourced pretty close to where you live.
  • Sorghum syrup
  • Sucunat or Muscovado
    This is granulated and works well as a sugar replacement in recipes too.

You’ll note that there is no mention of turbinado sugar, truvia, xylitol or erythritol above. All of these are processed, some more heavily than others. Stay far away if you can. You’ll also notice that the theme here is that less processed is better. Make your choices wisely. Mother Nature’s kitchen always trumps the processing plant when it comes to your health.

Wishing you happiness and health,

Cat Calhoun, L.Ac.


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Filed under Nutrition, Processed foods

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