Introduced in the 1990s, agave syrup has become quite popular with people who are health and fitness conscious as well as those who are into more natural, gluten-free or organic products. After all, agave comes from a plant so it must be healthy, natural, and great for us, right? As it turns out, this is not necessarily the case. In the past few years, I used agave syrup or nectar in several recipes before I heard some negative things about it. I have looked at where agave comes from, the chemical composition, how it is metabolized, calorie content and what it may be used for. Only now do I have a full grasp of the process it goes through to be used as a sweetener and how that may affect us. Agave syrup comes from the agave plant, which is grown almost exclusively in Mexico (3). In the past several thousands of years, natives in Mexico used agave for medicine and as a sweetener, which they boiled a few hours and did nothing else to it (2). This brought about the misconception of today’s agave nectar or syrup – most people think of it as natural like the agave of the past. Many agave syrup bottles are even labelled with the story of agave in ancient times (2). The blue agave plant is the best choice for agave syrup, and this is the same plant from which tequila is made (1). The plant must grow for 7-14 years, and then is separated, the leaves are removed from the core (3). The core or root of the plant is made up of starch and inulin, which consists of fructose chains (2). Since inulin isn’t sweet, it needs to be converted or hydrolyzed to fructose (3). The core is smashed to extract the syrup, and then must be processed with heat, enzymes, and chemicals (3). The process can be compared to the process of creating high-fructose corn syrup (2). It may include caustic acids, filtration chemicals and genetically modified enzymes (2). The chemical make-up of agave nectar is a large portion of fructose, ranging from 60 to 90% depending on the brand specifications, and the remainder of agave syrup is glucose (1). All sugars contain these, but in different amounts. As a basis for comparison, table sugar contains a 50% to 50% ratio of the two, and high-fructose corn syrup comes in at 55% fructose and 45% glucose (1).
Figure 1 - Agave syrup Chemical Structure – www.scienceblogs.com
Agave nectar or syrup is metabolized in the liver where it is converted to fat and stored. This is due to it having such a high fructose percentage; it cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream (3). A downside to this is that too much fructose could be very harmful to one’s health. Possible issues with high fructose consumption are hardening of the arteries, mineral depletion, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease (2). There are many studies linking high levels of it to fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome and high triglyceride counts (3). In fact, a study on rats used only moderate amounts of agave syrup and still showed a sizeable increase in their triglycerides (3). It is interesting that fructose is such a huge portion of agave as it is marketed to diabetics since it is low-glycemic, or doesn’t raise blood-sugar as much as other sweeteners or sugar, since fructose can cause insulin resistance (1). Overall, experts suggest that while it isn’t the best choice for diabetics, the key is still moderation and that it would be a better choice than refined sugar (1). The calorie content of agave syrup is 20 calories per teaspoon, while sugar is 16 calories (4). However, agave is much sweeter than sugar, about 1.4 to 1.5 times as sweet (4). This could be an advantage, since a person could use less in baking or cooking of agave than other sweeteners. In fact, a baker should use about 2/3 cup agave syrup in place of 1 cup in recipes (5). Agave syrup appears in baked goods like cakes, cookies, brownies (5) as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (3). It can also be used in things like granola bars, a...
References: 1. Bowden, J. Debunking the Blue Agave Myth [Internet]. HuffPost Healthy Living 2010 [posted 2010 February 15; cited 2014 February 9]. Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-jonny-bowden/debunking-the-blue-agave_b_450144.html
2. Fallon, S. & Nagel, R. Agave Nectar: Worse Than We Thought [Internet]. Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts Weston Price Foundation Magazine [posted 2009 May 1; cited 2014 February 9]. Available from : http://www.westonaprice.org/modern-foods/agave-nectar-worse-than-we-thought
3. Lamphere, K. Agave: considering the issues [Internet]. Sound Consumer 2010 [posted 2010 April; cited 2014 February 9]. Available from: http://www.pccnaturalmarkets.com/sc/1004/sc1004-agave.html
4. Phillips, V. How Sweet It Is: Cooking with Agave [Internet]. Deseret News 2009 [posted 2009 May 12; cited 2014 February 9]. Available from: http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_17906.cfm
5. Trover, S. Tips for Substituting Agave in Baked Goods [Internet]. The Kitchn [posted 2010 January 11; cited 2014 February 11]. Available from: http://www.thekitchn.com/5-tips-on-substituting-agave-i-105651
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