You Ask, I Answer: Agave Is The New Enemy?

Before reading my response below, I recommend you read his article first.

One more thing before we get started.  Look back at previous posts on this blog and you will see I am by no means an agave enthusiast.

From the inception of Small Bites, I have always said that, in my world, “sugar is sugar is sugar”.  All sweeteners offer 4 grams of sugar (16 calories) per teaspoon.  The best thing you can do is limit all added sugars — whether it’s white sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, or agave.

That said, I don’t see the need to demonize agave, which brings us to this post.

Dr. Mercola’s statements are in red.  My responses are in black.

“We have an epidemic of obesity in the US and it wasn’t until recently that my eyes opened up to the primary cause – - fructose.”

Here we have one of the most basic (yet very prevalent) erroneous statements about obesity rates — that a certain component in food “causes” obesity.

Rising obesity rates are clearly linked to increases in caloric consumption.  Technically — though very misleadingly — one could argue that carbohydrates are behind rising obesity rates in the sense that some of the additional calories consumed over the past thirty years come from carbohydrates.

Protein intake has also increased in the past forty years, so one could also technically claim protein is behind rising obesity rates.  Of course, those sorts of statements are ultimately untrue and distract from any sort of serious conversation on the matter.

The issue with sweeteners — ALL of them — is that they provide empty calories.  Empty calories do not satiate.  That is why we can easily drink 600 calories of soda (whether it is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, or agave nectar) and still feel hungry.  Eat 600 calories of a whole food that offers fat, protein, and fiber and I guarantee you will be full for hours.

“Depending on the source and processing method used, agave syrup can, therefore, contain as little as 55% fructose, the same amount found in high-fructose corn syrup — in which case the syrup would offer no advantage.”

Except that no one who consumes agave seeks it out because of lower fructose levels. Some reasons why individuals prefer agave over high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) include:

  • Avoidance of genetically modified organisms
  • Flavor/texture preferences
  • Veganism (the filtration of white table sugar often utilizes bone char from animals, thereby making it unsuitable for vegans)
  • Practical use (you can purchase agave nectar and bake with it, add it to beverages, or pour some over yogurt)

“Most commercially available agave is converted into fructose-rich syrup using genetically modified enzymes and a chemically intensive process involving caustic acids, clarifiers, and filtration chemicals.”

Okay, and most yogurts contain excessive amounts of sugar.  That doesn’t mean all yogurt should be avoided.  Similarly, a lot of salmon is farmed and offer less omega-3s than wild salmon.  The key isn’t to completely shun salmon, but to know which types to pick.  That said, though, the processing of agave only requires one step.

As Marion Nestle explained on her Food Politics blog earlier this year, “agave contains inulin, a polymer of fructose, which must be hydrolyzed (broken down by heat or enzymes) to fructose to make the sweetener.  It’s a processed sweetener requiring one hydrolysis step, requiring more processing than honey and less than high fructose corn syrup.”

Raw agave nectar achieves this process through enzymes, while other varieties utilize heat.  I don’t know where the “caustic acid” notion comes from.

“While agave syrup does have a low-glycemic index, so does antifreeze — that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”

A pretty terrible comparison.  I am not a fan of labeling foods as “good” or “bad” based solely on their glycemic index.  After all, ice cream has a ‘better’ score than watermelon.

“There are also concerns that some distributors are cutting agave syrup with corn syrup — how often and to what extent is anyone’s guess.”

Concerns that have never been substantiated, to the best of my knowledge.  Again, they key is to look for reputable sources.  Look for the USDA Organic seal on bottles of agave nectar, and make sure the ingredient list only lists agave nectar.

“Agave is known to contain large amounts of saponins. Saponins are toxic steroid derivatives, capable of disrupting red blood cells and producing diarrhea and vomiting. There is also a possible link between saponins and miscarriage by stimulating blood flow to the uterus, so if you’re pregnant, you should definitely avoid agave products.”

Saponins are found in a variety of foods, mainly legumes and beans.  They actually have health-promoting effects, including the lowering of LDL cholesterol.  When consumed in extremely high amounts, they can cause gastrointestinal distress.  Look at the data, though. and the amount of saponins needed to experience those symptoms is ridiculously high.  Dr. Mercola’s hyperbolic statements would be akin to a warning not to drink wine because it contains alcohol, which is capable of causing alcoholic poisoning.

“Fructose only becomes a metabolic poison when you consume it in quantities greater than 25 grams a day. If you consume one of the typical agave preparations, that is one tablespoon.”

I don’t know where the “25 grams a day” figure comes from.  It is not referenced and I certainly have not seen it in any reputable journal or publication.  What is most ridiculous about this quote is that it literally doesn’t add up.

One tablespoon of agave nectar contains 12 grams of sugar.

Let’s assume we are talking about one of these “super high in fructose varieties”.  Fine, if ninety percent of that sugar is fructose, that leaves us with 10.8 grams of fructose.

How Dr. Mercola concludes that a tablespoon (12 grams) of agave equal 25 grams of fructose beats me — and scientific reasoning.

For the record, a medium mango contains more than 25 grams of fructose, so does a medium pear and half a mango.  Would you consider that “metabolically poisonous”?

As for pesticide claims: if this is a concern for you, look for certified-organic agave.

Is agave addictive?  I have yet to see any evidence of that.  The very preliminary — and very controversial — research on sugar addiction only places the spotlight on sucrose, not fructose.

As I have stated before, I never considered agave a “wonder” food.  I never advocated liberal consumption, nor did I classify it as “healthy”.  While I take issue with anyone who classifies agave as a health-promoting “super food”, I also will not stand for absurd demonizations of it.

As one distributor or raw, organic agave put it, “[Agave] is not going to solve world peace, cure cancer or do your laundry, but it will provide a delicious alternative to highly refined sweeteners, poor tasting nutritive sweeteners, and high glycemic natural sweeteners.”

One last point — what is it about the word “doctor” that inspires blind trust in so many?  For years now, I have heard people parrot absurd nutrition “facts” with the assumption that said information must be true because “a doctor” said it.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are many intelligent, well-informed doctors with extensive nutrition knowledge.  There are also those who, for whatever reason, believe that having ‘MD’ after their name automatically makes them THE authority on every topic under the umbrella of health.

The word “doctor” before someone’s name simply means they were granted an MD or PHD.  It tells us absolutely nothing about someone’s character, motivations, or extent of knowledge.

So, no, Edrie, please do not forward that inflammatory article to your girlfriend.  Allow her to enjoy a small amount of agave nectar in her coffee.

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22 Comments

  1. Rosey said on April 19th, 2010

    Posts like this are why I like you and recommend you to everyone I know. So informative and fact-based.

    Thanks for helping us wade through all of the health-related information available today, and thanks for giving us such an unbiased and easy to understand perspective.

    You rock!

  2. Katie said on April 19th, 2010

    Thanks for another good counter argument, do you mind if I link back?

  3. Nancy said on April 19th, 2010

    Fantastic and informative answer to Edrie’s question.

    Thanks,
    Nancy

  4. Justin Wilson said on April 19th, 2010

    Dr. Mercola is a quack. It is no coincidence that he sells his own brand of honey, which has just about as much fructose in it as high fructose corn syrup, yet he claims it is health food. The best advice is to not jump on any bandwagons.

  5. Marianne said on April 19th, 2010

    Thank you for this well written look at agave. I have also heard some RD’s even demonizing it because of it’s high fructose content. Obviously, it’s still a sugar, and should be treated as such, but it’s not the devil in disguise when it comes to sweetener options. I’m one of those people who prefer it as a sweetener for a cup of tea, because of it’s mild flavour, and sometimes I add a bit to plain yogurt.

    Dr Mercola sounds like…well…not someone who would should be spouting nutritional information like it’s gospel. Especially after knowing about the association he is a part of.

  6. Andy Bellatti said on April 19th, 2010

    Katie, not at all! Feel free.

  7. Edrie, Orlando, FL said on April 20th, 2010

    Thanks so much, Andy! We had discussed the article but I was still reluctant to show it to her. I will instead send her your sober & informed reply instead. You are a wonderful resource & I appreciate your help.

  8. Sarah @ Semi-Sweet said on April 22nd, 2010

    GREAT post! Catching up in my reader today and am pleased to know that you, too, think Mercola’s a flake.

  9. Rick said on April 24th, 2010

    [...] No, not really, but I think you are doing yourself a grave disservice if you don’t also read Andy’s article as [...]

  10. Martin said on April 24th, 2010

    Thank you for this well written look at agave. I have also heard some RD’s even demonizing it because of it’s high fructose content. Obviously, it’s still a sugar, and should be treated as such, but it’s not the devil in disguise when it comes to sweetener options. I’m one of those people who prefer it as a sweetener for a cup of tea, because of it’s mild flavour, and sometimes I add a bit to plain yogurt.

    Dr Mercola sounds like…well…not someone who would should be spouting nutritional information like it’s gospel. Especially after knowing about the association he is a part of.

  11. sarah said on April 26th, 2010

    bravo, Andy.

  12. Doug said on May 4th, 2010

    I can’t help but think that you’ve missed the point here. More and more research is finding that fructose consumption is damaging over and above damage caused by glucose consumption. A small study in the UK found that fructose increases diabetes and heart disease factors independently from causing simple weight gain, a result not seen in the glucose group of the study. It was a small study, so firm conclusions can’t be drawn, but this is enough to at least raise red flags. And despite the “main reasons” you claim people are turning to agave (to avoid agribusiness? Aside from the fact that I don’t know anyone who is using agave to avoid agribusiness, agave is an agribusiness) these reasons are incidental – the main reason people flocked to it in droves is because we were told it was a healthy alternative to sugar; or at least that it was innocuous. Now we’re learning that it probably isn’t. Research on fructose (see the work of Dr. Robert Lustig), while not directly done on agave, is enough to draw a logical argument for it being unhealthy. There probably haven’t been any studies done specifically on twinkies, but we can deduce that they’re bad for us given the ingredients. The same can be said for agave. I’m not defending Mercola’s article – I think you have clearly pointed out some flaws in his logic. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. I think that, for safety reasons, agave should be shelved until it can be proven safe.

  13. Ana said on May 4th, 2010

    Wow! You sound very angry! … I think this article should be more about the facts on how Agave syrup is made than about attacking Dr. Mercola or anyone else (I’m not here to defend Dr. Mercola, this shouldn’t be about him).

    The reason why people should be careful about Agave is because it is HIGHLY processed, and that’s the reason why I do not use it.

    Mexican natives started making a sweetener, called Miel de Agave, out of the agave plant. That’s made by boiling the agave sap for a couple of hours. But that’s not what you find here in the US.

    The agave they sell here in the US is highly processed and is made from the starch of the root bulb.

    Also, people should get better informed about sucralose. What you find in fruits is NOT sucralose. The sugar of the fruits is actually called levulose and is rich is naturally-occuring enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin. Sucralose is a MAN MADE sugar created by the refining process and is BAD! Period!

    Hey Edrie, do not throw your girlfriend’s agave syrup out. Instead, tell her to seek information about it. Read… read… read… not only Dr. Mercola’s article, and certainly not only THIS article posted here in Small Bites. Research, get informed, and then judge for yourself.

    You can start here: http://www.foodrenegade.com/agave-nectar-good-or-bad/

    I found this article during my own research about Agave. I had also read Dr. Mercola’s article and many others… and also scientific information about sucralose, and about the refining process of sugars. I do not consume processed foods, and that’s why I avoid agave.

    I hope this helps.

  14. Ana said on May 4th, 2010

    Oops! I am sorry, when I said sucralose in my previous comment, I meant to say FRUCTOSE.

  15. Andy Bellatti said on May 4th, 2010

    Doug,

    By ‘agribusiness’ I mean the likes of Monsanto, who practically own the high fructose corn syrup “industry”.

    I do not believe I am throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I am not saying agave is “healthy” (it is an added sugar, after all), nor am I saying it should be consumed without worry. However, I think it is important for people to get direct facts, rather than alarmist, over-the-top news.

    I don’t see any reason why agave should be “shelved”. Someone who adds two teaspoons of agave to their morning coffee or tea should not feel as if they are drinking poison!

  16. Andy Bellatti said on May 4th, 2010

    Ana,

    What makes me angry is alarmist and sensationalist hype that only confuses the public. I also don’t agree with you that “this shouldn’t be about Dr. Mercola.” Why not? After all, he is the one who wrote the “anti-agave” article.

    I think it is very logical to scrutinize the “who” behind everything that is written. Therefore, this also should be about Dr. Mercola, his credentials, and his past work.

    As I pointed out in the article, not all agave is highly processed. Some is, some is not. Blanket statements only detract from the issue.

    I am also confused by your statement that “the agave they sell here in the US is highly processed and made from the starch of the root bulb.” I know of a few agave distributors in the US who do not sell that kind of agave.

    Also, fructose is not a man-made sugar. It naturally occurs in many foods. People with fructose malabsorption, for example, can not eat apples, pears, and watermelon without experiencing highly uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms. If fructose were ONLY man-made, as you claim, then why would someone who can’t tolerate fructose be unable to properly digest those fruits?

  17. Ana said on May 5th, 2010

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for answering my comment.

    I really hope that not ALL agave available in the US market are highly processed. In fact, agave was the only sweetener that I liked (I really don’t like the taste of stevia and obviously do not consume artificial sweeteners), but I stopped buying it because of my findings on how it is processed nowadays. I am now using a little bit of Organic Evaporated PALM sugar, and am heading to not using ‘sugars’ at all.

    The sugar found in fruits IS levulose, which is also called D-fructose (a monosaccarhide found in many foods), and therefore causes the same intolerance in some people that have problems with fructose. Crystalized fructose is man made and, believe me, that’s what you will find in the agave you buy here in the US! Again, it is BAD! Period!

    If you have someone in you family with diabetes who uses agave due to the claim that it has low glycemic index, I bet that person often has spikes on blood sugar levels, despite the fact that she/he has a good diet and exercises regularly. Remove agave from her/his diet and watch the results on those high numbers of blood sugar level. I say this because I experienced in my own family, here, in my house – agave was the [only] reason for the blood sugar to spike every morning, despite the fact that we only eat organic, raw, local, fresh food (no artificial, no processed, no meat, no dairy, no junk food of any kind). Agave is gone, never had a morning blood sugar spike again!

    Unfortunately for all of us, the USDA is extremely corrupt and is not interested in regulating what makers can put on their labels. Reading the labels is crucial, but we have to always make sure that label is legit and truthful (still not sure how to do that!). Makers even create different names to continue poisoning our food. See MSG for example, it has many names, and people don’t even realize they’re eating a POISONOUS ingredient that is addictive and can cause cancer (http://www.thatsfit.ca/2009/07/27/msg-and-the-fattening-of-a-nation/).

    If you know of an Agave Syrup brand that is NOT made from the starch of the root, and instead uses the old method used by Mexican natives, please let us know. I really want to find an agave that’s not processed. Still hoping to come across a REAL agave here in the US.

  18. LovinRaw said on May 12th, 2010

    Ana, you are down right nutty. First of all, NO agave in the US (or anywhere) is “made from the starch of the root bulb”. Clearly you have no knowledge of agave other than what you’ve gleaned from the anti-agave articles. Fact: There is NO STARCH in the agave plant. The juice comes from the plant’s natural inulin oligofructose, which is a carbohydrate not even closely related to starch. Starch is what comes from corn. Fact: My diabetic father uses agave nectar and does great with it – NO BLOOD SUGAR SPIKES. Fact: There is NO CRYSTALIZED FRUCTOSE in agave nectar. You don’t know a thing of which you so adamantly try to persuade others to avoid.

    Here’s some great agave nectar companies that are of the highest quality, are certified organic, and are companies that work hard, employ many people, and give back to their communities:

    Madhava
    Wholesome Sweeteners
    Nature’s Agave
    Xagave

    …and many others that I could name, but I doubt it matters much to you. Your comments seem more in line with the anti-agave blogging campaign currently in operation. Unless you’ve seen the process yourself, please do the rest of us a favor and don’t comment on how agave nectar is produced.

  19. Andy Bellatti said on May 13th, 2010

    Thank you, Dave, for that wonderful, detailed response.

  20. John Vincent GI said on November 19th, 2012

    This is just a current update, 2012, before the world ends… lol (I’m obviously kidding… )

    LovinRaw… Awesome answer.

    Ana, everything that you have said about agave stems from that anti-agave article and that anti-agave doctor.

    Every so called fact that you have commented here comes from articles posted on the web that stem from the same article, which for your information, has for the most part been removed from a number of websites due to its inaccuracies.

    Look, I too on my research first came across the anti-agave articles. And many that I read after that stemmed from the same articles, including ‘food renegade’ but I didn’t stop there. I kept reading, and researching. I wanted to hear the other sides views. And I did. And I then compared the facts. All the facts, not just some peoples opinions.

    When I read that agave nectar is made from the starch of the plant, I fact check that by searching a database about plants written by people that live and breath everything that deal with ‘plants.’

    So, believe me, agave has no starch, just like LovinRaw stated above. If you have purchased agave nectars in the past that ‘spiked’ your sugar levels in the morning, then they were crappy brands (which do exist out there…) that add corn syrup to their agave as a filler ingredient. Only buy Raw & Certified Organic Agave from reputable suppliers. The short list that LovinRaw noted above is a fine one. Madhava is one of the best.

    You should go to Madhava.com and check out how they make their agave. In fact, here is a link for you: A rebuttal letter from the CEO of Madhava Agave nectar to the above wacky anti-agave scare.

    http://www.wellsphere.com/healthy-eating-article/madhava-s-craig-gerbore-responds-to-agave-nectar-controversy-here/584480

    Have a wonderful life everyone! =)

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