Agave sweetener is a fairly recent sugar alternative that is predominantly produced from the Agave tequiliana species also used to make the popular distilled alcoholic beverage known as tequila.
First introduced to the U.S. health food market in 1995 via the Natural Products Expo West trade show, it was largely promoted as a low glycemic, low calorie, natural raw sweetener. Advertised under the label "agave nectar" or "blue agave syrup", it became a popular alternative sugar used in "healthy" brands of raw chocolate, ice cream, salad dressing, ketchup and protein bars.
By the early 2000's it was a widely used syrup commonly found in local co-ops as well as large chain health food stores. It was consumed by many vegetarians and those following a raw vegan diet, and became a frequently utilized ingredient in many raw dessert recipes made at home or prepared in raw vegan restaurants.
For a while, everyone loved agave, that is until about 2009 when agave was essentially exiled as a nutritious natural syrup, deemed an extremely processed "high fructose" sugar equated with that of high fructose corn syrup.
In April of 2009 Rami Nagel, author of "Cure Tooth Decay: Heal and Prevent Cavities with Nutrition", released an article entitled, "Agave: Nectar of the Gods?", chiefly criticizing its high fructose content. The information he provided was an unsourced sugar profile report analyzing the two main commercial agave sources, Nekutli (Madhava) and Iidea (Wholesome Sweeteners), as well as raw honey and maple syrup. Agave was presented to contain between 70-85% fructose, twice as much as raw honey and a considerable amount more than maple syrup, which contains more sucrose than fructose.
In the article he made some good points about the processing techniques used and condemned the mislabeling made by these two leading agave manufacturers at that time. He essentially accused them of false advertising and making it appear as if agave was simply the extracted unprocessed "nectar" straight from the agave plant, rather than a refined high fructose variety.
A month later, both Sally Fallon and Rami Nagel co-wrote an article entitled "Agave Nectar: Worse Than We Thought" in which they compared agave syrup to high fructose corn syrup. One of their main points was the concept that agave was a marketing ploy intentionally introduced by corporate agave monopoly's in an underhanded way to replace high fructose corn syrup, a sugar with the growing reputation as an "unhealthy" sweetener.
In July 2009 Dr. Joseph Mercola published his first article on agave entitled, "Agave: A Triumph of Marketing over Truth" which made a huge impact on the holistic health community and his large health-conscious fan base.
In short, a once favorite sweetener consumed in many raw vegan circles as well as among a broad range of health enthusiasts, was slowly discounted in the months and years to follow.
The subsequent information below is what we have found in our own personal research on agave sweetener in an attempt to genuinely get behind the truth of the matter.
As we discussed, many top health experts opposing agave's use as a sugar substitute often compare the plants "starch content" to that of corn syrup, produced from a high starch vegetable. There is, however, NO starch in agave, rather it contains fructans or fructooligosaccharides (FOS), also called oligofructose, which are polymers of the fructose molecule.
These fructans can be further broken down into substances referred to as "inulins", a class of dietary fibers often found in roots and rhizomes of certain species as a way to store energy.
According to Wikipedia, "Most plants that synthesize and store inulin do not store other forms of carbohydrate such as starch." (Source) Agave sweetener is technically classified as a "hydrolyzed inulin syrup" for this reason.
The inulin is hydrolyzed into the two main simple sugars fructose and glucose. While all commercial agave syrups are definitely a concentrated source of fructose, some undergo high temperature and chemical processing methods which can significantly increase fructose content. Those that are not high heat processed and employ low-temp evaporation techniques are found to offer much lower levels of fructose as well as a balance of other sugar content.
Although high fructose corn syrup has been compared to some refined low quality agave nectar's, lets first get the facts straight.
HFCS is made from milled corn starch and a process that converts its sugars and concentrates its fructose content into varying grades between 42-90% total fructose.
Conversely, agave sweetener is processed from the natural fructan polysaccharides that exists in the core of the plant when ripe.
As mentioned, the worst commercial agave syrups to consume are those that have gone through a high degree of processing, considerably concentrating the fructose percentages. This includes being cooked or baked at high temperatures over 140°F (60°C) for 36 hours or more, in addition to being exposed to harsh chemical treatment.
Even Dr. Mercola himself admits in a 2011 Huffington Post article that some agave products are not as bad as others, stating that "Part of the problem leading to the confusion is that there are some natural food companies that are indeed committed to excellence and in providing the best product possible. But let me assure you that in the agave industry, this is the minority of companies."
He goes on to further state that these "ethical companies" quote:
In our research, not all agave is composed of the same sugar profile. According to Nutrition Data, a non-bias nutritional information resource, different types of agave show different ratios of fructose, glucose and sucrose. Inulin levels are not however available, although it is probably safe to assume that it is a large percentage of the total dietary fiber content.
(Analysis of the blue agave Southwestern species, based on a 28g (2T) serving size and a 2000 calorie diet)
As we have stated, not all agave is created equal because the
manufacturing process and ratios of sugar content may vary considerably. According to the
nutritional information provided, raw agave, in
terms of fructose percentage and other sugar ratios, seems to be a much better option over
cooked agave sweeteners.
Unfortunately, there are no raw labeling laws or guidelines requiring companies to state specific processing temperatures on the label. In effect, the term "raw" can be used freely without adhering to low-temperature processing. Some brands may therefore use it as a marketing device, while others genuinely are producing a low heat (under 118°F or 48°C) treated sweetener. So, in other words, it is really up to the integrity of the company you purchase your agave from.
If you do decide to use agave as a sugar alternative, we would recommend using the raw minimally processed sweetener. Our top recommendations for agave are Raw Ojio Clear Agave Nectar (Ultimate Superfoods),Volcanic Blue Agave (Global Goods) and Premium Light Agave (Raw Food World).
According to our direct communications with Ultimate Superfoods, the sugar profile for their agave contains 64.5% fructose, 12.7% dextrose, 0.2% sucrose and 1.1% maltose. Global Goods is 47.6% fructose and 16.7% dextrose/glucose, they also state on the bottle that it is "processed at 118°F (48°C)." (Source)
In a 2010 article written by David Wolfe entitled "The Agave Blues", he expresses that "If you select agave as a sweetener, only use certified organic clear agave of the type Ultimate Superfoods distributes. Be sure to request that every company selling agave provide laboratory data that their product is free of chemicals, contains a low percentage of fructose, contains a high percentage of inulin, and is free of toxic saponins."
The top two "health food" brands of commercial agave syrups are Madhava and Wholesome Sweeteners. It is ultimately up to one's personal taste preferences and health goals whether or not you choose to consume these agave nectar products as there is some question about their potentially high ratio of "free fructose" sugar content.
On the Wholesome Sweeteners website it states that "Wholesome! Fair Trade Organic Blue Agave is made up of 75% Fructose, 20% Dextrose [Glucose] and the balance is inulin (dietary fiber) and mannitol."
Based on an email conversation, Madhava states that their product labeled "raw agave" contains a minimum 84% fructose, maximum 13% dextrose and maximum 2% sucrose.
While high fructose sweeteners, especially in the form of "free fructose", are known to have a lower glycemic index and glycemic load when compared to pure sucrose or white refine sugar, large amounts have shown to be linked to a number of health implications when consumed over a period of time.
Some of these negative impacts may include decrease in glucose tolerance, increase in uric acid formation as well as insulin resistance, obesity and triglyceride levels associated with heart disease.
For this reason, we do not recommend consuming concentrated high fructose sweeteners on a regular basis, especially in large quantities. Even higher quality agave is best used with other ingredients in recipes, not ingested alone in liquid teas or drinks, but balanced with other foods.
(For more on agave visit our agave nectar page.)
Inulin fructans are soluble dietary fibers and recognized for their prebiotic effects on gut microbiota, which encourage the growth of microflora like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus.
In one 2015 double blind study analyzing agave, it was shown that "agave fructans are well tolerated in healthy human subjects and increased bifidobacteria and lactobacilli numbers in vitro and in vivo."
Inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS), however, has also been found to encourage the growth of Klebsiella, which is problematic for those with leaky gut. Different yeast strains, like Candida albicans, may also consume inulin and therefore agave sweeteners should be avoided in cases of yeast overgrowth or dysbiosis.
Inulin fructans are viewed commercially as beneficial sugars to use in a number of consumer products because they are minimally digested and provide attributes that reduce the amount of calories and add soluble dietary fiber. Properties of which are considered appropriate for diabetics as they are a low glycemic sweetener.
Inulins remain intact throughout the digestive process until they hit
the large intestine. This is where bacteria feed off of inulin, but as a
side effect may cause the release of carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and/or
methane, particularly for those who don't usually consume inulin-based
sugars, like agave sweetener. This rapid fermentation in the colon may
cause gas, bloating and aggravate those with IBS.
In one article review, published in the journal Nutrients, it was referenced that, "Inulin, oligofructose, and FOS have been extensively studied as prebiotics, and have been shown to significantly increase fecal bifidobacteria at fairly low levels of consumption (5–8 g per day)." It was also stated that "A 12-month study of 100 adolescents ingesting 8 g/day short- and long-chain inulin fructans showed a significant increase in calcium absorption that led to greater bone mineral density."
In another 2014 published study investigating the absorption of calcium and magnesium, it was recognized that "Scanning electron microscopy showed that fructans were able to mitigate bone loss" and "demonstrated that supplementation with agave fructans prevents bone loss and improves bone formation."
Of course the best sugars and sources of fructose come from whole fruits and vegetables. However, processed natural sugars, like agave, coconut sugar, coconut nectar and xylitol serve a purpose, to make foods and beverages more palatable and enjoyable to eat. Whether you choose to consume more or less of them in your life time is up to you.
While we promote a diet high in natural sugar content from whole food sources, occasional sweeteners, like high quality raw agave, consumed in moderation as part of a health promoting diet is not going to, we feel, cause significant adverse health effects.
Relatively speaking, sometimes these sugars act as healthier substitutes for more addictive, refined and artificial varieties.
Used in small amounts, natural sweeteners can be an flavorful way to enjoy certain foods and drinks. Although they are not required for health, they can satisfy a sweet tooth in a world filled with far more harmful and tempting options.
It is important to make suitable choices depending on your own personal health objectives. High quality, organic low-temperature processed agave may be one of these options, but may not necessarily be appropriate for all people in all circumstances.