Sometimes I wish I were one of those people who could casually take or leave a chocolate-caramel brownie. Or better yet, one of those strange specimens who actually find the taste of sugar too sweet and mildly unpleasant. But I am not. I am slave to my physiology and people evolved to enjoy sweet foods. In nature, sweet foods are rich in nutrients and carbohydrates (think carrots making them a good bet for a foraging human. Fortunately or unfortunately, what was once the simple pleasure of a wild berry or two is now conveniently achieved tenfold by scarfing down a chocolate chip cookie 3-pack in the McDonald’s exit lane. When those sweet molecules meet our taste receptors, it sets off a series of reactions resulting in the release of various neurotransmitters, including dopamine. In case you missed psych 101 in college, let me fill you in on what happens when people encounter a scenario where pleasure-invoking neurotransmitters are released in the brain. We tend to do that thing again and again like little robots with a short circuit. Sadly, it’s hard for a rational counterbalance such as “will make me unhealthy and feel bad at some nonspecific time in future” to compete with much effectiveness.
It is not surprising then that the selling of sweeteners is huge business. I imagine there are probably teams of food scientists across the globe whose sole job it is to come up with the latest greatest sweetener. Theres the cheap stuff food manufacturers use to sweeten food (forms of corn, and then theres the stuff marketed directly to consumers. While we’ll happily feed little Sally the chemically altered corn starch already in her cereal, it makes us feel bad to actually sprinkle or pour it on top of the cereal. Luckily, food marketers are ready in the wings to bring us some sweeteners that can make us feel good about ourselves. Enter agave nectar.
Agave nectar is made from extracting the juice from the agave plant (a succulent grown in Mexico also used to make tequila and heating that juice to form a runny syrup. You can buy it in light or amber forms, the latter having gone through less filtration and containing more plant solids. Agave nectar (notice its not called agave sugar, or agave fructose has been marketed to us as a natural sweetener, used by the Aztecs for centuries, with various anti-microbial properties and a low glycemic profile. It’s really perfect for the health-conscious, microbe-hating, Aztec-loving consumer.
I have only tried the amber form but I find agave nectar to have a pleasant, neutral sweet taste. Unlike honey or maple syrup which have very distinctive flavors (that I also enjoy related to their source, agave nectar doesnt remind you of anything. It’s just sweet. The main benefit in my mind is that the glycemic index of agave nectar is so much lower than your average sweetener something in the realm of 20-25. Low glycemic index means less impact on blood sugar which in turn means a little agave isnt likely to kick off a 10pm sugar binge.
Now for the sad part. The reason agave nectar scores so low on the glycemic index is that it contains only 10% glucose. What comprises the other 90% Fructose. Well, as it turns out, too much fructose isnt so good for you, either. Drat! Even though fructose does not cause the kind of immediate insulin response that glucose does, too much over time can lead to all the same old problems associated with a high carb diet, like insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and increased serum triglycerides. Furthermore, there is some question about the presence of saponins in agave. According to an article I read at the Weston A Price Foundation website entitled Worse Than We Thought: The Lowdown on High Fructose Corn Syrup and Agave “Nectar”, saponins are toxins that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and even miscarriage. Finally, the process by which agave nectar and high fructose corn syrup is made is very similar. Agave nectar is produced from the starch of the agave (not from boiling the sap or juice of the plant as the Aztecs would have just as high fructose corn syrup is manufactured from the starch of the corn. This brings about the desire to boycott agave nectar just to punish the industry for its deceptive marketing tactics.
So whats the bottom line My conclusion is that agave nectar is less desirable than honey and maple syrup in terms of its nutritional profile. However, I also think it can be useful in moderation for those who react to the glucose in honey and maple syrup by speeding off to the nearest 7-11 for a bag of Oreos. In my observations, “okay in moderation” isnt something that people are very good at. But here we encounter a nuance of the primal lifestyle the occasional vice. Eating large amounts of sugar, in all its forms, is bad for our health. But adding a few tablespoons to a batch of primal muffins, or opting for the occasional drizzle on some blueberries and yogurt isnt going to send you to the dialysis clinic. As long as it is eaten in small quantities consistent with a primal eating style, I think the type of sweetener you use is a matter of personal preference.
What are your thoughts on agave nectar versus other ‘natural’ sweeteners