Is Agave Syrup Good for You?

Friday Jan 24 | BY |
| Comments (4)

Agave

Agave syrup comes from the natural agave plant, but does that mean it’s good for you?

Agave syrup, or “nectar,” is a commercial natural sweetener derived from the agave plant, including blue agave (Agave tequilana), famous for its use in making tequila. Agave plants are native to the southern and western United States, Mexico, and central and tropical South America. Like cactus, they are succulents, but are more closely related to the Yucca family of plants.

Agave is the technical name for this family of plants. In Mexico, it’s called maguey, but that’s a term the Spanish gave the plant having picked it up from the Taíno indigenous people of the Caribbean islands, including Cuba. The Nathuatl (language of the Aztecs) named it meti.

Traditionally, indigenous people in southern Mexico follow an ancestral method to make a fermented beverage from agave called pulque. Modern commercial production for making agave syrup and tequila requires cutting down the entire plant. Traditional pulque production collects the sap that is placed in barrels, using the plant in a sustainable manner. To make pulque, a bacterium rather than yeast as used in beer making, is added to start the fermentation process.

Pulque is health giving. It contains carbohydrates, vitamin C, B-complex, D, E, amino acids, and minerals including iron and phosphorus, as well as fiber and probiotics. It’s questionable if agave syrup has any of these properties.

Too Much Fructose Spells Trouble

Marketed as a healthy sugar or honey substitute, agave nectar is actually very high in fructose. In fact, it’s even higher than high fructose corn syrup. The fructose content of agave nectar is between 47% and 56%, depending on the variety of agave. High fructose corn syrup is 55% fructose. Agave nectar is pleasant tasting. It’s sweeter than honey, but not as sticky, and has a very nice light amber color.

High-fructose corn syrup is a fructose-glucose liquid sweetener alternative to sucrose (white table sugar). It was first introduced to the food and beverage industry in the 1970s. Chemically, it is not much different in composition or how it is metabolized in the body from other fructose-glucose sweeteners like sugar, honey, and fruit juice concentrates. It was an obscure product until its use as a replacement for sucrose in packaged products and sodas grew between the mid-1970s to mid-1990s. —from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

But too much fructose is not good for you. Fructose is linked to insulin resistance and significantly increased triglyceride levels—both associated with metabolic syndrome—and can increase the risk for diabetes and heart disease. It may also drive up uric acid levels, the substance that causes gout. Fructose intolerance is a condition that is often misdiagnosed because symptoms are similar to irritable bowel syndrome and gluten intolerance. Too much fructose is indirectly linked to obesity.

Commercial agave nectar doesn’t add nutritional value to the diet. Like other natural sweeteners, it’s mostly carbohydrate in the form of sugars. It has no protein, no fat, and no fiber. One tablespoon of agave nectar has about 60 calories; honey and sugar have between 45 and 64 calories. It has very little nutrient content, but it may have other health properties.

Not All That Bad: Prebiotic Effects

Agave nectar may serve as a prebiotic supporting the growth of lactic acid family of friendly bacteria like the lactobacillus species Lactobacillus casei and Bifidobacterium lactis. Because the main carbohydrate in the agave plant is inulin, present at between 16% and 22%, it makes an excellent prebiotic. However most of the inulin is removed when manufacturing the syrup.

A new study in the International Journal of Biological Macromolecules found that agave fructans have important prebiotic effects that help modulate immune cells. Fructans are a type of fructose molecules that occur in foods such as agave, artichokes, asparagus, leeks, garlic, onions, yacon, jícama, and wheat. Another study suggested a role for agave fructans in the prevention of colon cancer.

The Glycemic Index Controversy

Because of its high fructose percentage, agave nectar has a glycemic index load of 30, ranking it up there with some types of honey and raw sugar.

Glycemic Index Load

  • HIGH: 20 and above
  • MEDIUM: 10 to 19
  • LOW: less than 10

Earlier reports ranked agave as having a low glycemic index. You’ll find many of these reports if you conduct a Google search, but check the dates—they are before 2010. According to the earlier data comparing it to table sugar with a glycemic index of 65 and honey at 58, agave nectar is lower, but is it low enough?

The University of Sydney Glycemic Index Research Services in Sydney, Australia maintains a comprehensive database of glycemic index values for carbohydrate-containing foods. The way they rate foods gives a different range, shifting values upward. I’m not in favor of this system because it allows for more sweets in the diet.

University of Sydney Glycemic Index Scores

  • HIGH: 70 and up. Examples include instant white rice, brown rice, plain white bread, white skinless baked potato, boiled red potatoes with skin and watermelon.
  • MEDIUM: 56 to 69. Examples include sweet corn, bananas, raw pineapple, raisins and certain types of ice cream.
  • LOW: 55 and under. Examples include raw carrots, peanuts, raw apple, grapefruit, peas, skim milk, kidney beans and lentils.

I realize it’s confusing to have different rating systems. However, the result in the body is the same: high glycemic index foods cause a spike in blood glucose levels.

Chart 1

from “About Glycemic Index (GI)” University of Sydney

Insulin Resistance: A Major Health Disruptor

High Glycemic Index (GI) foods push glucose up very high almost immediately after ingestion. These dramatic spikes in glucose drive insulin resistance, a condition in which cells fail to respond to the normal action of the hormone insulin that keeps glucose levels within normal physiological range.

Insulin resistance occurs when cell receptors become “resistant” to the hormone insulin. Because of insulin resistance, your muscles are no longer able to make glycogen, a form of stored carbohydrate used for energy. This causes abnormal metabolism in the skeletal muscle resulting in an increase in triglyceride levels in the bloodstream, which can lead to the syndrome.

Five Conditions That Define Metabolic Syndrome

  1. A large waistline – abdominal obesity or “belly fat.”
  2. High triglyceride levels – a type of fat found in the blood as measured in a lipid panel.
  3. Low HDL—the “good” cholesterol.
  4. High blood pressure.
  5. High fasting blood sugar—your glucose level measure in a blood test.

In an age of global obesity epidemic, increasing numbers of people with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, it makes sense to keep you glucose levels down and to control insulin resistance.

Symptoms & Signs of Insulin Resistance

  • Brain fog
  • Intestinal bloating
  • Sleepiness, especially after meals
  • Increased hunger
  • Weight gain, and difficulty losing weight
  • Belly fat
  • High blood triglyceride levels
  • High glucose levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased inflammation
  • Depression
  • Acanthosis nigricans (dark, poorly defined, dark patches of skin usually found in body folds of the neck, armpits, groin, and navel)

Agave Nectar Bottom Line: Don’t Over Use Commercial Sweeteners, Including Agave Nectar, Even if They Taste Great

Naturally sweet foods like honey, maple syrup, raw cane sugar, and agave nectar, when commercially processed, have lots of fructose that drive up glucose levels and trigger insulin resistance. High fructose commercial sweeteners are not the way nature made them, even if they are labeled “natural.”

Chart 2

from The Complete Blood Test Blueprint Program by J. E. Williams, OMD

If you’re a diabetic, you cannot use agave nectar. In my clinical opinion, if your glucose (also called fasting blood sugar – FBS) level is over 95 mg/dL, you may be prone to developing metabolic syndrome. In this case, cut back on all sweets, including natural ones like agave nectar.

Dr. J. E. Williams

J. E. WILLIAMS, OMD, FAAIM

Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

ADD: For updates and more information, follow me on Facebook.

Facebook 

4 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. Satori says:

    Great article. Maybe the best I read. I was revisiting agave to answer my family’s question. Thank you!

  2. Dr. Williams says:

    Fructose is important for health and endurance. However, too much is causing problems. The fructose and plant-based natural diet requires a tune up. There are many solutions, but keeping your dietary levels of fructose under control is a good starting point. This is especially important for those not getting enough exercise and who sit a lot during the day, like working in front of a computer screen.

  3. Zyxomma says:

    I occasionally have a raw treat made with agave syrup. The keyword in that sentence is OCCASIONALLY. My fasting blood sugar is between 68 and 73, because I don’t overdo sweets, quit modern wheat, and don’t eat a lot of grain. The only thing I eat in great quantity is vegetables, everything I eat is organic, and much of it is locally grown and purchased at the Greenmarket, where I’ve cultivated relationships with the people who grow my food. When I make something fabulous out of their produce, I bring them back a few bites, and share recipes when they wish. When it’s just a coin or two, I ask them to keep the change. I always thank them for making my urban existence possible. In fact, one of the “secrets” to my vibrant health is an attitude of gratitude. When I sit down to eat, whether at home or elsewhere, I offer thanks to everyone who made the food on my plate possible: planters, growers, pollinators (especially bees), pickers, truckers, cashiers, cooks, waiters, even myself when I’ve done the prep (and that’s most of the time). Be thankful; it’s one of the keys to vibrant health. Health and peace, renegades!

  4. Kym says:

    Thanks, Dr. Williams. RH does a good job of making information digestible but having started a degree in nutritional medicine, I definitely appreciate these more technical articles.

    Comments are closed for this post.